The Florida legislature completed its 2006 session on May 5 with the passage of a broad voucher accountability bill, but it failed to pass a joint resolution that would have given voters an opportunity to amend the state constitution to protect current programs from potential legal challenges.
The approved bill, S.B. 256, codifies the strict accountability and fiscal practices already used voluntarily by the Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations (FLA-SFO), the nonprofit organizations that administer Corporate Tax Credit (CTC) Scholarships.
The bill places in law many of the private school accountability measures already implemented by the State Department of Education. It also requires tax credit scholarship students to take a nationally recognized norm referenced test, such as the Stanford Achievement Test; requires a longitudinal study to be conducted of children’s learning gains; and requires private schools that participate in the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and tax credit scholarships to submit to random site visits and criminal background checks for employees.
“We have adhered to these practices and lobbied the legislature to codify them for three years,” FLA-SFO spokesperson Denise Lasher said. “This is a great step forward for participating schools and students and the general public, who can now rest assured the scholarship funds are wisely managed and strict accountability measures are in place.”
The accountability bill allows students who were attending the school of their choice on the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to transfer to the CTC program, provided they meet income qualifications, to ensure an uninterrupted educational experience.
Opportunity Scholarships were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in January. Scholarship opponents sued on two constitutional grounds: violation of the state’s “Blaine” amendment, which prohibits the transfer of state dollars to any faith-based institution, and the Article IX “uniformity” clause in the state constitution, which requires the legislature to fund a uniform system of public schools. The District Court of Appeals ruled the scholarships violate the Blaine amendment.
The state supreme court was silent on Blaine, ruling on uniformity instead. The appellate decision is thus the last ruling on Blaine, making it the current law of the land in Florida.
Because several other Florida education programs–including the McKay Scholarships, Voluntary Pre-K, Bright Futures College Scholarships, and Florida Resident Access Grants for college–are funded identically to Opportunity Scholarships, all of them could be vulnerable to the same legal challenge.
To prevent that from happening, the legislature considered a joint resolution to put on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that would safeguard the remaining scholarships. Passing that bill would not have required legislators to give the programs a thumbs-up or -down; they were simply voting to allow the citizens to decide in November. Earlier this session, the House passed its own version of the bill.
The joint resolution first made it to the Senate floor on May 2, where it fell one vote short of the three-fifths support required. The next day, in a bold and controversial move, a motion to reconsider the bill was made, and a simple majority approval kept it alive. But supporters were unable to muster the necessary three-fifths votes prior to the conclusion of the session on May 5, meaning the only possibility of reconsideration would be during a special session, should the governor call one.
Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.