Florida Legislature approves vouchers for bullied students

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida took steps Monday to set up the nation's first ever private school voucher program for bullied students under a sweeping education bill that the state's Legislature passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott.

The vote came the same day that legislators also sent to Scott a significant revamp of Florida's universities and colleges that includes a significant boost in financial aid provided to the state's top performing high school graduates.

It was no accident both passed 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. GOP House members could be seen high-fiving and hugging each other shortly after the House voted to create the new voucher program.

If the governor signs the legislation, students who are victims of bullying and other types of violence can move to a different public school or receive a private school voucher under the Hope Scholarship program.

"Each and every child deserves to feel safe at school," House Speaker Richard Corcoran said. "No child should ever have to fear for their safety as soon as they step into the classroom."

The bill (HB 7055) containing the new $41 million voucher program barely edged out of the Florida Senate as four Republicans sided with all but one Democrat in fierce opposition to the legislation. Democrats sharply criticized adding another voucher program in a state that already spends nearly $1 billion on vouchers.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from near Tampa, also criticized a provision aimed at Florida's teachers union that was added to the bill at the insistence of House Republicans. It would require the union to go through a recertification process if less than 50 percent of teachers represented by the union are dues-paying members.

"We do a lousy job of representing working class people and we should be ashamed of ourselves," Lee said. "We have to accept this poison pill and slap the teachers of Florida in the face."

The sweeping bill also includes a requirement that all Florida schools must display the words "In God We Trust." It also offers tutoring help to students who perform badly on the state's standardized reading test given to third-graders.

The push to overhaul Florida's universities and colleges was a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron. Under the bill now headed to Scott, the state would pay either 75 percent or 100 percent of the tuition costs of students who qualify for the Bright Futures scholarship. Nearly 100,000 students now receive the scholarships.

"I think this will make a tremendous difference in the lives of students," Negron said. "Bright Futures is iconic. It's part of being a Floridian."

Florida, in an effort to trim back the cost, scaled back the scholarship program 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.

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 bill does not include that provision.

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