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Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Fla. Voucher Plan Can Continue During Appeal, Judge Says

Fla. Voucher Plan Can Continue During Appeal, Judge Says

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School choice proponents in Florida applauded a court ruling last week that allows them to continue implementing the first statewide voucher program in the country, even as they acknowledged that doubts about the program's future persist.

In an April 25 decision, Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith turned down a request by voucher opponents to halt the implementation of the program while the appeal of an earlier ruling is pending. Judge Smith ruled against the program in March, saying it violates a state constitutional provision that requires the state to provide a high-quality system of free public schools. But under Florida law, the effect of that ruling was immediately deferred when the state filed its appeal March 21.

"This means that there is a much better chance that the program will go forward this fall than there was before," said Matthew Berry, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that is helping represent the state in the voucher case. "Had the program been enjoined, it would have been impossible for it to continue next year."

Voucher opponents, meanwhile, expressed hope that a state appeals court will hear the case before the program's likely expansion in the fall.

"We don't want to expand a program that is unconstitutional and wrong," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association and one of the groups that filed the original lawsuit against the state program. "The sooner the courts hear this, and the sooner we get some resolution, the better." ("Voucher Plan Struck Down in Fla. Court," March 20, 2000.)

Uncertainty Prevails

With a state appeals court expected to hear the case sometime this summer, voucher advocates acknowledged that the program's implementation is clouded by uncertainty.

Florida's plan, adopted last year, was designed to provide educational options for students in failing schools. Currently, only 53 students from two Pensacola elementary schools receive the state-paid tuition vouchers, which enable them to attend private or religious schools.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and other voucher proponents hope to offer the program next school year to any students attending schools graded F for a second year under a state accountability program that assigns letter grades to schools.

When state test scores are released in June, the 78 schools that were graded F last year will learn if their test scores increased enough to merit better marks. Students in the schools that fail to make the grade will be qualified to receive vouchers to attend participating private and religious schools, or transfer to a different public school.

With only about 70 private schools in the state indicating they are willing to take voucher students, voucher supporters say they are trying to overcome school officials' anxiety about the future of the program to bring more private schools on board.

"It's a matter of confusion, uncertainty, worry," said Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, an advocacy group. "It's all a part of being a part of something that's new, and something that's disputed. The wait-and-see attitude of some of these schools is really quite rational."

Grants for Private Schools

Meanwhile, John F. Kirtley, a Tampa-based businessman and school choice advocate, recently gave private schools more of an incentive to enroll students through the state voucher program.

Mr. Kirtley announced last month that he had raised $2 million to provide grants to private schools willing to accept voucher students. The grants could be used to pay for building expansions, new computers, books, or "any expenditures necessary for schools to get their space ready to take the kids," Mr. Kirtley said.

"It's going to take time and invested capital for private schools to respond and create spaces for students," said Mr. Kirtley, who is a partner in a venture capital firm. "Most business people understand that. But it's hard for people to understand that about education."

But Mr. Clark of the FTP-NEA argued that such efforts showed voucher advocates' willingness to go to extremes to prop up a program that is faltering in the face of dwindling public support.

"The vast majority of people in this state believe that our dollars should be kept in public schools and not be drained by a voucher program," Mr. Clark said. "If [the donors] really cared about children, they would use their well-heeled money ... to support public schools.

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Page 25

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