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Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Vouchers Front and Center in Fla. Legislature

Vouchers Front and Center in Fla. Legislature

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Less than a month into their legislative session, Florida lawmakers are knee-deep in debate over a plan to provide taxpayer-financed tuition vouchers to students in the state's most academically troubled schools.

Under the proposal first introduced by Gov. Jeb Bush, which the House was expected to pass this week, the state would assign letter grades to schools based on their performance on state tests. Students in schools that failed to meet the state's standards could receive vouchers worth about $4,000 each to attend any public, private, or religious school in Florida.

Florida is one of at least 15 states considering voucher proposals this year. Though such proposals have been introduced in a number of states in recent years, 1999 stands out as Florida and two other large states could see significant debates over limited voucher plans this year, said Eric Hirsch, a senior policy specialist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Plans in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas "seem to have the right political context right now that it might actually happen," Mr. Hirsch said. If passed, they would become the first statewide voucher plans in the nation.

In Florida last year, Mr. Bush, a Republican, campaigned for the governor's job on a promise to deliver "opportunity scholarships" for children in failing schools.

This year, his voucher proposal--which is included in his larger "A+ For Education" plan--has sailed easily through House education and budget committees. Observers say it faces little threat of formidable opposition when it comes before the full House this week.

Limiting the Scope

But the plan could hit snags in the Senate, where education committee members from both parties have introduced measures that would limit its scope.

Under the House proposal, kindergarten students attending public schools that received grades of F for two years out of four could receive tuition payments to cover the duration of their K-12 schooling, even if their public schools improved or their families moved to academically strong districts.

Last week, the Senate education committee debated an amendment introduced by Sen. John H. "Buddy" Dyer Jr., the Democratic minority leader. After failing to gain support for a measure that would have eliminated Mr. Bush's voucher plan altogether, Mr. Dyer pushed language that would prevent vouchers from being automatically transferred from one school to the next. Under Mr. Dyer's proposal, students who received vouchers in elementary school, for example, would not receive vouchers for middle school or high school if those schools met state standards.

"I don't believe that taking money out of the public school system is the best way to improve low-performing schools," Mr. Dyer said. "The consensus in committee is that [vouchers] shouldn't be unlimited. The deeper we get into the session, the more optimistic I am that we can blunt some of this."

Republican Sen. Donald C. Sullivan introduced a similar measure that would, in effect, stop students from rolling their vouchers over from one district to another if schools in the district they moved into met state standards.

Supporters of the House approach say parents could always choose to return to the public schools, but should not be compelled by a state requirement to do so. Patrick Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, said forcing a student to attend a specific school after he has gone to school elsewhere was like saying that "the state has some claim on the child."

"The family has a choice to go back if the school has improved itself," added Mr. Heffernan, whose grassroots group only recently endorsed Mr. Bush's proposal after lobbying for a broader voucher plan. "And, in practical terms, private schools don't break up the K-12 years like public schools."

The Senate committee was expected to consider the amendments again at a meeting on March 22.

Plan for Expansion

From the outset of voucher discussions in Florida, opponents have raised fears that Gov. Bush's plan could grow to cover more than just a limited number of schools.

Just last week, the sponsor of the governor's plan in the Senate, Republican Sen. John M. McKay, proposed also creating a pilot program that would provide vouchers to parents of special-needs students in four counties who could prove their children's needs were not being met by public schools.

Parents seeking vouchers would be required to document a child's lack of progress at school, using evidence such as test scores that were below grade level. The pilot program would be limited to 5 percent of students with disabilities in Broward, Clay, Sarasota, and Santa Rosa counties in the first year. It would expand to 10 percent of student enrollment in those counties in the second year, and 20 percent after that. Currently, about 39,000 students with disabilities are enrolled in the four county school systems.

Under Sen. McKay's plan, voucher values would range from $6,000 to $25,000, depending on the severity of the disability.

As a parent of a child with learning disabilities, "I know how frustrating the process is," said Mr. McKay, who chairs the Senate's rules and calendar committee. "Fortunately, I was able to afford to pay for a private school, but most parents can't. The present system is an elitist system."

Longtime critics of Mr. Bush's voucher plan say the proposal only confirms what they've feared: Some lawmakers won't rest until vouchers replace public schools.

"It just moves the curtain over a little bit, so we can start to see what's really behind this," said Cathy Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "Ultimately, you're not going to be able to limit this program just to special-needs students."

Mr. Bush has indicated support for the McKay proposal, despite having told detractors during the gubernatorial campaign that he would back a voucher plan only for students in the state's worst schools.

"We are not pushing it, it's not a part of the governor's A+ For Education plan, but he is supportive of the amendment," said Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Pages 17-19

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