News Column

Orlando Sentinel Aaron Deslatte column

February 14, 2014

By Aaron Deslatte, Orlando Sentinel



Feb. 14--TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's public schools and school choice proponents alike could face a day of reckoning this year.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, calls it the Four Horsemen: teacher standards, school grades, student-learning standards and the tests, themselves.

All are due for a tune-up in the spring legislative session, as lawmakers look to revise the Common Core academic standards, the methods for assessing both schools and students, and doling out merit pay bonuses to teachers.

But one potentially massive shock to the system could be coming on the school-choice front: not the expansion of Florida's school-voucher program, but the idea of requiring the tens of thousands of students receiving them to take similar assessments as their public-school counterparts.

Weatherford wants to expand Florida's nationally watched Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, which awards $229 million in school vouchers to more than 60,000 low-income students and provides the companies funding the program with income tax-credits.

Weatherford wants to let companies claim tax credits on their insurance premiums and sales taxes, and to create partial scholarships for families whose rising income renders them ineligible for the program after their children have already been in it.

Weatherford wants no cap on these new streams, which theoretically could lead to a major expansion, although he says there is only a "finite demand" for the vouchers. "There's not a million kids that are going to participate in the program," he said.

But his legislative counterpart, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, wants the testing. And it's a bit of a sore spot.

Back in 2008, Gaetz was a newbie pushing a bill expanding the corporate tax credit program, which is run by Tampa millionaire John Kirtley, while also requiring some assessment of student performance.

His House partner, Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, took his expansion bill, stripped out the testing and sent it back to the Senate -- a take-it-or-leave-it proposition at the end of the session. "He rolled me," Gaetz recalls.

This year, when Weatherford approached him about another voucher expansion, Gaetz reminded him he "left something on the table."

So, the voucher expansion this year will have to contain assessments for private school voucher students.

That would be a dramatic swing in Florida's experience with school choice, where critics have complained voucher programs were diluting public schools with no evidence they were improving the outcomes for poor children.

Some people support school choice because they believe, without clear evidence, that it will force public schools to shape up via competition.

The other argument is that students trapped in poverty and failing schools never get a chance in life. And vouchers are an avenue for them to break out of life's less fortunate cycles. Here, the jury is still out. And assessing student performance would go a long way to putting these experiments to a real test.

Nobody believes that more than Gaetz, a former school superintendent.

"If our goal here is to try and open pathways in education out of poverty and to a better life for these kids, then we have to measure whether or not the educational choices are really improving performance," he says. "Are they choice for the sake of choice? And that may be a valuable commodity. But is educational choice leading to educational advancement? It's important to know that as a matter of public policy."

And Gaetz says he doesn't intend to get rolled again.

adeslatte@tribune.com or 850-222-5564. Follow him on Twitter at @adeslatte.

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