Florida Gov. Scott signs voucher & college aid bills

Posted at 5:57 AM, Mar 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-12 06:14:01-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida will create the nation's first ever private school voucher program for bullied students under a sweeping education bill signed into law Sunday by Gov. Rick Scott.

The far-reaching measure pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran also requires all Florida schools to display the words "In God We Trust" on school grounds and that Florida teacher union must go through a recertification process if membership levels fall beneath a certain threshold. The state's main teacher union has been at odds with the Republican-controlled Legislature for years.

Scott also signed a separate bill that revamps Florida's universities and colleges and includes a significant boost in financial aid provided to the state's top performing high school graduates.

It was no accident both were signed by Scott on the same day since the measures were championed by the two Republican leaders of the Legislature and their fates had been intertwined all session.

Florida already spends nearly $1 billion a year on several private school voucher programs including one directed at low-income families. The bill signed by Scott will allow students who are victims of bullying and other types of violence to move to a different public school or receive a private school voucher under the $41 million a year Hope Scholarship program. The vouchers will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis starting this fall.

"Every child in Florida should have the opportunity to get a great education at the school of their choice so they can achieve their dreams," said Scott.

Democratic legislators sharply criticized the legislation (HB 7055) as it moved through the process and the bill barely edged out of the Florida Senate as four Republicans voted 'no.' They said instead of setting up another private school voucher program that the state should do more to deal with bullies in schools.

"It's just the latest demonstration that Scott puts his own self-serving politics over Florida's schools, teachers and students," said Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Caroline Rowland, soon after he signed the bill.

The push to overhaul Florida's universities and colleges was a priority of Senate President Joe Negron. Under the bill (SB 4) signed by Scott, the state would pay either 75 percent or 100 percent of the tuition costs of students who qualify for the state's popular Bright Futures scholarship. Nearly 100,000 students now receive the scholarships, which had their costs scaled back during the Great Recession.

Negron championed the idea of restoring the scholarship amounts as part of an overall package that he and other senators say is designed to make it easier for students to graduate faster.

"We are doing everything we can to help our students finish on time and with no debt or as little debt as possible," Negron said.

The Florida Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but it was vetoed last summer by Scott. Scott said he objected to parts of the measure aimed at the state's 28 local colleges, including placing enrollment limits on certain four-year degrees offered by the colleges. This year the Senate did not include that provision in the legislation.