Florida OKs 1st Statewide Voucher Plan
In what is being declared a landmark victory for voucher supporters nationwide, Florida lawmakers last week approved a plan to give students in the state's worst schools taxpayer-funded tuition payments to attend qualified public, private, or religious schools.
By a vote of 25-15 on the final day of the legislative session, the Senate last Friday ushered in what will become the first statewide voucher program in the country once it is signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.
The plan was approved as a part of the first-term Republican governor's broader education reform package that also includes provisions to end social promotion, raise teacher standards, and reward high-performing schools. The House had voted 70-48 to pass the final version of the "A+ Plan for Education" on April 28. ("Fla. House Approves Bush's Voucher Plan; Senate Action Likely," April 7, 1999.)
"Florida will lead the nation in offering families educational choice," said Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican who served as the bill's primary sponsor in the House. "We need this innovative and revolutionary approach to reforming education."
Mr. Bush has not yet decided when he will sign the bill, but he is "very excited" about doing so, said Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Opponents of the plan, meanwhile, are already gearing up to move the fight over vouchers from the statehouse to the courthouse.
"There will be lawsuits filed the minute after the governor signs this bill," said Sen. John H. "Buddy" Dyer Jr., a Democrat and the Senate minority leader. "It's blatantly unconstitutional. We're setting up a system that guarantees failure of our public schools."
While state-adopted programs that provide public funding for students to attend private and religious schools are already in place in Cleveland and Milwaukee, the Florida action is significant because it's the first such wide-ranging voucher plan to be approved by a state, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform and a leading advocate of school choice.
Under the legislation approved last week, Florida schools will be assigned letter grades every year based on test scores and other factors such as attendance and graduation rates.
Schools getting A's and those showing marked improvement will receive incentive payments of $100 per student to use as they desire. Students in schools that received failing grades for two of every four years, meanwhile, could use state vouchers worth approximately $4,000 to attend a qualified public school other than the one to which they have been assigned or to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.
Legislative supporters of the plan maintain that the vouchers won't add to the state education budget because students' per-pupil allotments--money that would traditionally go to their assigned public schools--will now follow them to the schools of their choice.
The combination of provisions contained in the plan "sends a strong message," Ms. Allen said. "There's a stick in there for schools and a carrot in there for parents, and that's as it should be."
But with limited space available in private and religious schools throughout the state, some critics say the nonstop talk of vouchers offers a false promise to parents of students in low-performing schools.
Only students in a maximum of four schools would qualify for vouchers next fall, but the Florida Department of Education estimates that that number could jump to as many as 169 schools at the start of the 2000-01 school year
Given rough projections that set enrollment in those schools at 156,000, it would be "physically impossible" for private schools to absorb every qualified student under such a scenario, said Karen Chandler, a spokeswoman for the state education department. Currently, 270,000 students attend nonpublic schools in Florida.
"It's anticipated that some parents may well choose another public school rather than a private school," Ms. Chandler added.
Critics also contend that the space crunch in a state known for having some of the most crowded public schools in the country, combined with lawmakers' decision last week to strip the final legislation of much of the Senate's original requirements for private schools accepting vouchers, will encourage the proliferation of private schools set up in a slapdash manner for the sole purpose of receiving state vouchers.
In Cleveland, "fly-by-night private schools opened up just to take the voucher students," said Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. "What are these legislators thinking? They're washing their hands of the majority of children by not putting money into what works."
The nation's teachers' unions have been in the forefront of battles against voucher plans around the country.
Nationally, the Florida legislation could provide "a shot in the arm" for other school choice measures under consideration in such states as Pennsylvania and Texas, said Patrick Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, a group that lobbied for the plan.
"Everybody is now going to be able to say, 'See, they're doing it,' " Mr. Heffernan said. "It's going to provide great encouragement nationwide."
Opponents maintain, however, that even some of the Florida lawmakers who voted for the voucher plan aren't convinced it will actually help public schools perform better. With Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, last week's legislative victory may not have happened at all were it not for the grace period Florida lawmakers are giving their popular new governor, said David Clark, a spokesman for Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.
"The arrogance of newfound power seemed to overrule reason as you listened to this debate," Mr. Clark said.
For the groups lining up to challenge the plan to provide students with vouchers to attend religious schools on the grounds that it violates constitutional provisions on separation of church and state, the legal outlook is mixed, observers said.
In a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to leave standing, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found last June that the expansion of Milwaukee's voucher program to include church-affiliated schools was constitutional.
But just last month, the Maine Supreme Court denied an appeal by a group of families that wished to use public money to attend religious schools. Like Vermont, Maine has a long-standing program that allows students living in rural areas without nearby public schools to attend secular private schools at public expense.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, argued that "the weight of legal opinion is against vouchers."
"Gov. Bush said he will be smiling when he signs this bill," Mr. Lynn said. "Well, he won't be smiling when the court declares it unconstitutional."
But in crafting the voucher bill, Florida lawmakers paid special attention to constitutional requirements, Mr. Diaz de la Portilla said.
"People bringing the legal challenges need to be careful because we're dealing with children and their futures," he said. "It would be irresponsible of them to keep children from learning how to read and write because of their own special interests."
Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 1,21