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Florida School-Choice Expansion Set to Include More Higher-Income Households

UPDATED

Florida lawmakers have approved an expansion of its tax-credit scholarship program that would allow more students from higher-income backgrounds to become eligible for scholarship funds in the school-choice program. 

The changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are in Senate Bill 850, which the Florida House and Senate have both approved by comfortable margins. Right now, the income-eligibility requirements in the program allow only students from households making 185 percent of the federal poverty line or less—for a family of four, that's a household income of $44,100 a year. The bill got final approval May 2.

The bill, courtesy of Sen. John Legg, a Republican, expands that eligibility beginning in the 2016-17 school year up to a maximum of 260 percent of the federal poverty line, or $62,000 for a family of four. But it also reduces scholarship amounts based on students' household income levels. The scholarships will be reduced by the following percentages:

• 12 percent if the student's household income level is greater than or equal to 200 percent, but less than 215 of the federal poverty level; 

• 26 percent if the student's household income level is greater than or equal to 215 percent, but less than 230 percent, of the federal poverty level;

• 40 percent if the student's household income level is greater than or equal to 230 percent, but less than 245 percent, of the federal poverty level; 

• 50 percent if the student's household income level is greater than or equal to 245 percent, but less than or equal to 260 percent, of the federal poverty level.

Students from households above 260 percent of federal poverty still won't be eligible in 2016-17 and beyond.

Right now, the main scholarship-funding organization in Florida, Step Up for Students, is providing scholarships to just under 60,000 students. (There's also the McKay Scholarship Program for Florida students with disabilities.)

In an interview, Jon East, a vice president at Step Up for Students, said that he anticipates that the tax-credit scholarship program will eventually double in size and serve about 120,000 students. Right now, he said, Step Up for Students is providing $286 million in scholarships for 2013-14. But for 2014-15, because of conditional increases built into the scholarship program, the organization can distribute up to $358 million in scholarships, East said.

The bill also requires an annual audit of scholarship-granting organizations by the state auditor general. UPDATE: The bill also bars the use of state funds for lobbying by Step Up for Students. That's apparently a reaction by lawmakers to reports that Step Up for Students' representatives have touted their clout in Tallahassee, the state capital. Rich Templin of the AFSCME union in Florida, had this to say about the group's presence in the halls of Florida power:


However, East said in reaction to that tweet that in fact, Step Up for Students only has two registered lobbyists, and neither of them are in their 20s. 

"I don't think you should use the money that is meant for and is described as scholarships for low-income kids to pay lobbyists and [engage in] political activity," said Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican, according to the Times.

Asked about the new audit provision, East seemed unconcerned, saying, "That seems like a fair enough policy."

One more related note on school choice programs, this time from Arizona: State Superintendent John Huppenthal has put out a plan that, for the state's education-savings account program (CORRECTION: I originally referred to the tax-credit scholarship program in the state), would provide higher per-student funding for students attending private schools than for those in public schools. That state aid gap, according to the Arizona Daily Star, could amount to nearly $2,000 per student, and Huppenthal said that the proposal is based on the state's law governing charter-school funding.

The Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association vigorously oppose the idea, and the former is already teeing up a lawsuit on the grounds that such an gap in state aid would be unconstitutional. (Earlier, this year, the state supreme court allowed the states tax-credit scholarship program to stand after it had been challenged in court.) 

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