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Published in Print: September 4, 2002, as Florida Sees Surge In Use of Vouchers

Florida Sees Surge In Use of Vouchers

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As the school year begins, record numbers of Florida students are using an expanded menu of state-financed vouchers and other tuition-aid options to enroll in private schools—despite a recent state court ruling that is clouding the outlook for school choice in the state.

The number of Sunshine State students from low-performing schools who are using vouchers to pay for private schooling—at religious as well as secular schools— has jumped to roughly 575 this year, up from about 45 last year, officials said.

Thousands more are taking advantage of a separate voucher program for children with disabilities, which has doubled its enrollment since last year. And even more Florida students are making use of a new state law that allows businesses to earn tax credits when they donate scholarship money for students to attend private schools.

But the expansion of Florida's programs of private school choice is happening in the shadow of a state court ruling handed down last month in a case challenging the state's "Opportunity Scholarships." Those tuition vouchers go to children who would otherwise be assigned to public schools that the state has identified as failing.

Florida Circuit Court Judge P. Kevin Davey ruled Aug. 5 that the voucher program violates a clause in the state constitution that bars religious institutions, including religious schools, from tapping public money. The state has appealed the ruling, and Judge Davey has let the voucher program continue until the case is resolved.

Last month's ruling came less than six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cleveland's school voucher program, finding that it does not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

In that decision's wake, state courts are being viewed as the next legal battlegrounds over school choice, as advocates prepare to build on the federal decision by trying to reverse bans in many states on using public money— even indirectly—to aid religious institutions. ("Voucher Battles Head to State Capitals," July 10, 2002.) School choice activists are hoping to push at least one such case to the nation's highest court.

In the meantime, Florida's combination of school choice options has made it a focal point in the national debate over public funding for private schooling.

"Florida is really 'school choice central,'" said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research who works in Weston, Fla. "Just about every choice program is being tried in Florida. From a researcher's perspective, it's a wonderful place to live."

Choices Aplenty

Florida's best-known approach to school choice is the voucher program pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush and passed four years ago by the Republican-controlled legislature. The Opportunity Scholarships are part of the GOP governor's "A-Plus" education program, which assigns each school a letter grade based on students' test scores. Students who attend the lowest-rated schools can use state money to attend another public or private school.

Students in schools that receive an F twice within four years qualify for the vouchers, which are worth an average of $3,891 this year. The only schools that had qualified until now were two elementary schools in Pensacola, one of which has since been closed. Forty-six students made use of the vouchers last year, local school officials said.

Last year, not a single school in Florida got an F, and it appeared few students might ever qualify for vouchers. Then came this year's school grades, which shocked many educators. Eighty schools across the state received failing grades, and 10 schools became eligible for vouchers—five in the Miami-Dade County school district, three in Palm Beach County, and one each in Orange and Escambia counties.

Of the 9,000 students eligible in those schools, 577 have switched to private schools for this academic year, and another 900 have gone to other public schools, the state reported last week. Officials called those figures preliminary.

The Opportunity Scholarships have overshadowed Florida's other school choice programs—options that are attracting far more interest from parents, but haven't yet been challenged in court.

An estimated 9,000 students—twice the number for last year—have enrolled under the "McKay Scholarships," named for Florida Senate President John McKay, who helped win approval for them from the legislature three years ago. The program allows special education students to use state money to pay for private schooling, and serves children with challenges ranging from learning disabilities to profound handicaps.

This year's McKay Scholarships range from about $4,500 to $21,000 each. ("Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Aug. 8, 2001.)

A third school choice program in Florida that began this year provides a path for even more students to attend private schools: tax credits. Companies now can donate up to three-quarters of their state corporate-income taxes to nonprofit groups that give scholarship money for students to attend private schools.

About 20,000 students have applied for the tax-credit scholarships, and roughly 10,000 were on track to receive them as this school year began, according to FloridaChild, a Miami-based nonprofit group that helps K-12 students find scholarships.

The tax-credit scholarships provide $3,500, or the total of the school's tuition, book, and transportation costs—whichever is less—to parents who meet income and other eligibility criteria. Groups such as FloridaChild gather the tax-credit donations from businesses, then help students apply for the scholarships.

The array of tuition-aid options in Florida shows that private school choice has become permanent in the state, argued Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of FloridaChild.

"It's absolutely huge," he said of Florida's school choice options. "This is now a key part of many families' lives ... and they are not going to let it be taken away."

Courts and Candidates

Two coming events may strongly influence whether private-school-choice programs in Florida continue to expand, or even survive: an eventual court decision and this November's elections.

"Two years from now in the state of Florida, vouchers are going to be ruled unconstitutional," predicted Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the powerful, hard-lobbying teachers' union that is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. "It's clear as day. There's no other way to read our constitution."

Mr. Welch accused school choice supporters of pushing a hurried expansion this year so that they could argue later in court that permanently barring state-financed vouchers for religious school tuition would disrupt too many families' plans.

What's at stake, Mr. Welch said, is improvement for all schools and students, or for only a few.

"I still don't see how this adds up to a better public school," he said. "Vouchers allow you to walk away, and wash your hands of it."

On the contrary, said Daniel Woodring, the state education department's general counsel: The goal of the state's accountability program, which includes the Opportunity Scholarships, is to improve the schooling of all Florida's children, including those in the public schools.

Despite the state court's ruling last month, Mr. Woodring said he remains hopeful that higher courts will uphold the Opportunity Scholarships because the state money goes to parents, not directly to religious institutions. And plenty of examples exist of state funds directly or indirectly supporting religious institutions, including the use of public money for student financial aid at private colleges, he said.

In the latest Florida decision, however, Judge Davey called the state constitution "clear and unambiguous" in separating the affairs of church and state. The Florida Constitution states: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

"It cannot be logically, legally, or persuasively argued that the receipt of these funds does not aid or assist the [religious] institution in a meaningful way," Judge Davey wrote as he ruled the voucher program unconstitutional.

Voters' Influence

In the political arena, Florida voters can help determine the state's course when they cast their ballots in two months.

Education is a leading issue in this year's race for governor: Democratic candidates hammering away at Gov. Bush's education policies include former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer and civic leader Bill McBride. The Democratic primary is Sept. 10.

The teachers' union has endorsed Mr. McBride, who wants to raise cigarette taxes to pay for smaller classes and for teacher-pay raises. Ms. Reno, considered the Democratic front-runner, says Gov. Bush should spend more time helping schools and less time grading them and helping parents abandon them.

Since the governor appoints the state's education secretary and the state board of education, any change at the top could spell big changes in policy. "I think our entire focus would change under a new governor," Mr. Welch of the FEA said.

Mr. Woodring, the state's lawyer, countered: "I don't think we know where Florida will go. We think the focus should be on the students and the parents. The focus should not be on existing institutions."

Times are changing, meanwhile, in the places where school choice is taking the firmest hold in Florida.

Half the state's public schools whose students now qualify for Opportunity Scholarships are in the 368,500-student Miami-Dade County district. About 514 students were using the vouchers as school began last week, 330 of them to attend private schools, district officials said.

Miami's lowest-rated schools have hard-working teachers and administrators but struggle with typical urban problems, said Beatriz Zarraluqui, who is tracking the Opportunity Scholarships for the district. Many students in those schools are immigrants just learning to speak English.

A former teacher in Dade County, Ms. Zarraluqui has mixed emotions about students who are leaving the public schools. "Some of them are going to very good private schools. Now they have an opportunity to send them, and that's great," she said. She added that she was worried about the quality of a few private schools.

"We have tried very hard not to have double-F schools. All we can do is keep trying, keep trying," Ms. Zarraluqui said. "We're not happy that it happened. It's not from a lack of trying."

Veronica Cabrera, a parent, was growing frustrated with what she viewed as the inability of the public schools in Dade County's Florida City to help her 2nd grader, Mario, work through a learning disability. She received a letter from the state about the McKay Scholarships for special education students, offering help with private school tuition.

Mario now is starting his second year at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Miami Beach, near his mother's office. It's convenient, the classes are smaller, the teachers communicate better than their public school counterparts did, and the scholarship even covers help from a private tutoring service, Ms. Cabrera said.

In the public schools, some teachers considered children lazy if they couldn't read well, she said. "And that's not true," Ms. Cabrera said.

'Up to Parents'

Angela Daugherty, a mother in Gadsden County near Tallahassee, decided to use the tax-credit scholarships to return her three children to Tallavana Christian School in Havana, Fla., where they had gone in their younger years. Ms. Daugherty said she moved her children into the local public schools after she had returned to college and no longer could afford private school tuition.

Now that they're back in private school, with all expenses paid by the scholarships, they are more challenged academically and happier, thanks to a more orderly and religious environment, she said.

"I think it's up to parents to make the decision," she added.

A secular private school in western Palm Beach County, 40 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, is one of those reaping the benefits of Florida's school choice programs. The Glades Day School in Belle Glade now has 20 percent of its students receiving help from the state.

The 500-student school offers preschool through the 12th grade. Twenty-five students now attend Glades Day using the Opportunity Scholarships, 23 use the McKay Scholarships for special education students, and 50 use the tax-credit scholarships, said Headmaster Mandy Perez.

Glades Day sits in an agricultural area where the biggest crop is sugar cane, about five miles from Glades Central High School—one of the state's 10 schools in which students are eligible for vouchers.

Mr. Perez said he believes parents have been attracted to Glades Day School because of its school uniform policy, smaller class sizes, and sense of community. The state-sponsored scholarships have helped his school grow by about 50 students and fill some empty seats, he said.

Art Johnson, the superintendent of the 165,000-student Palm Beach County district—the site of three of the state's 10 schools whose students became eligible this year for vouchers—said he respects people's right to decide where their children go to school.

But he's concerned about the reliability of an accountability system that found no F schools last year but 80 across the state this year.

"One of the issues we're going to have to grasp as a state is: Do you have to maintain a bell curve in this situation? Is it OK for everybody to pass?" Mr. Johnson said. "The reality is, some of those schools actually improved and got an F."

Vol. 22, Issue 1, Pages 1,34-35

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