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Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as After Flap, Students Allowed To Return To Failing Fla. School

After Flap, Students Allowed To Return To Failing Fla. School

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A new twist in the ongoing controversy over Florida's voucher program emerged recently, when two families whose children had transferred to a private school using state vouchers were initially denied permission to return the students to the failing public school they previously attended.

The children of both families qualified for the tuition vouchers because all five last school year had attended Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy in Pensacola. The school received an F under the new accountability system and voucher program approved by state lawmakers last spring. Spencer Bibbs is one of two schools in the state where students were eligible for vouchers this year.

Both families switched their children this fall to St. John the Evangelist School, a Roman Catholic school in Pensacola, but were dissatisfied and asked to switch back.

Officials of the 46,000-student Escambia County district, however, told the students that they could not return to Spencer Bibbs. They noted that both families had since relocated to areas zoned for different schools; in addition, the officials said, the voucher law specifies that students receiving vouchers may transfer only to private schools or those public schools that earn a C or better under the state's new grading system.

The families' predicament was hastily resolved Oct. 21, the day the families' grievances were first reported by the Pensacola News Journal. Escambia County schools Superintendent Jim May agreed to return the children of one of the families to Spencer Bibbs after a lawyer representing Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and the state education department requested that he do so immediately. The other family opted to keep its children at St. John after working out its differences with the school's principal.

'Gray Areas'

But despite its swift resolution, the incident shows there are some "gray areas" in the voucher law that need to be cleared up, said state Rep. Dee Dee Ritchie, a Democrat from Pensacola.

Dee Dee Ritchie

In a letter to state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Ms. Ritchie asked for an opinion on whether the voucher law allows students to transfer back to schools graded F under the state accountability program. The attorney general is expected to issue an opinion later this month

Depending on the attorney general's guidance, Ms. Ritchie said, she may introduce legislation that ensures that students receiving vouchers may withdraw from private schools at any time and attend the schools of their choice.

"Obviously, this has caused chaos in the families,'' the lawmaker said. "We've got to do a better job of clarifying what we mean, even though we appreciate [the governor's] interpretation.''

Gov. Bush insists that the voucher law is clear, and that Escambia County district officials misinterpreted it when they initially decided that the students could not return to Spencer Bibbs.

"There was just mass confusion over a very simple situation," said Corey Tilley, a spokesman for the governor. "Of course the students should be able to go back to the school they came from. Nowhere does the law prohibit them from going back to the F school."

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Page 20

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