- Associated Press - Thursday, March 20, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature is abandoning a plan to approve a major expansion of a state-backed program that helps low-income children attend private schools.

A clash over whether to force private schools that receive vouchers to require their students to take the same tests given in public schools apparently doomed the effort.

House Speaker Will Weatherford had emerged as one of the major backers of the expansion and called the failed effort a “shame.”

The Florida House had been advancing the bill to expand the nearly $300 million program, but the legislation had floundered in the Senate.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, on Thursday withdrew the bill from further consideration for this year. It was a tactical move that made it highly unlikely any legislation will pass.

Galvano said he made the decision because there’s “too many moving parts” going on over the testing requirement for private schools. Weatherford and House Republicans had been unwilling to accept the testing requirement and said it would be unfair to impose it on private schools.

Galvano added that it was hard to come up with a testing requirement this year for the private schools because Florida is in the middle of transitioning to a new exam that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2015. He said that maybe legislators would reconsider the proposal next year.

But Weatherford said he didn’t understand why legislators were abandoning the effort now.

“Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied,” Weatherford said. “I cannot see any reason why we’d quit on these kids.”

Both Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz said before the session that expansion was a top priority this year.

But it was Gaetz who insisted that the bill include the testing.

“I had hoped that we would be able to do two things at the same time: one, to expand the opportunity for low-income families to have more choice in education and at the same time bring financial and academic accountability to this program,” Gaetz said. “Apparently we’re not going to be able to do that this session, but hope springs eternal.”

Nearly 60,000 students from low-income families attend private schools as a result of the program, which hands out state tax credits to businesses that pay for the vouchers. State data shows that more than 80 percent of the schools participating are religious. Supporters estimate that as many 25,000 additional students are trying to get into the program

The bill would have expanded the program in several ways, including removing some eligibility restrictions, increasing the money available and offering partial scholarships to families who earn more than $60,000 a year. U.S. Census data estimates that the 2012 median household income in the state was just more than $47,000.

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