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Published in Print: May 7, 2003, as Bush Sends Florida Lawmakers Back to Capitol

Bush Sends Florida Lawmakers Back to Capitol

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Florida lawmakers didn't have much to show for themselves when they wrapped up their regular session last week. That's why Gov. Jeb Bush ordered them back into session this week to settle plenty of unfinished business: the budget, new class-size limits, and an expansion of school vouchers.

Legislators failed to pass a state budget by the end of their regular session on May 2. And their negotiations could lead to lower general funding for schools, but more dollars for smaller classes and other programs.

This coming fall, Florida must begin the first year of a voter-approved constitutional amendment that orders smaller classes in public schools—and which is estimated to cost as much as $1 billion to phase in. Mr. Bush, a Republican, campaigned against the plan last year and pushed lawmakers to give voters a chance to reverse their earlier vote, but the legislators so far have backed what the voters decided. ("Schools to See Big Windfalls From State Ballot Measures," Nov. 13, 2002.)

The legislature, then, must pass a budget soon so that school districts can make decisions for the coming year about adding teachers and classrooms to meet the new class-size limits. Gov. Bush wants the budget out of the legislature by May 11.

"It is frustrating and disappointing for all involved, especially the citizens of our state," the governor said in a statement, referring to the absence of a budget.

Expanded school vouchers may very well play a role in the class-size-reduction plan.

Gov. Bush has proposed that school districts be able to offer state-funded tuition vouchers as a way to shrink class sizes. Under such a plan, districts that did not meet yearly requirements for class- size limits could be forced by the state to allow students to use vouchers to transfer to private schools, including religious schools.

That plan could still pass, and its impact would depend on how many districts adopted it or were forced to use it to meet space demands.

Aid For Tuition

Florida's most popular voucher program may also double in size starting in the fall if some legislators get their way.

Those tax-credit- financed scholarships provide $3,500 for students whose families meet low- income requirements. Many of the 15,700 recipients use the vouchers to attend private schools, including religious schools.

Money for the tax-credit scholarships comes from businesses that donate a portion of their state taxes to nonprofit corporations that issue the scholarships. Currently, the state has a $50 million statewide cap on the amount available for those scholarships. A compromise legislative plan under debate would raise the cap to $88 million.

A House plan would double the size of the cap to $100 million, while a Senate plan would raise it to $75 million and provide first priority to children of military families.

"Certainly, we would prefer the $100 million versus the $75 million, but we'll be happy to take whatever increase they give us," said Denise Lasher, the executive director of the Florida Education Freedom Foundation, a Tampa-based a group that is an advocate for the tax-credit scholarships.

Ms. Lasher and other proponents of those scholarships contend that the program is saving the state money by keeping districts from having to provide extra teachers and classrooms.

Meanwhile, Skardon Bliss, the executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, said some poorer families use the tax-credit scholarships and other voucher programs to get their children into better schools.

"There are some people that haven't been able to access independent schools that are doing so," said Mr. Bliss, whose group, also based in Tampa, includes 157 private schools.

Public School Impact

But critics counter that the program takes money from public schools, amounts to a public subsidy for religious purposes in some cases, and does nothing to solve problems in struggling schools.

Any growth in Florida's voucher programs portends great changes for schools already feeling the effects of departing students.

The 65,000-student Volusia County school district, which includes Daytona Beach, has lost 339 students to private schools since the tax-credit scholarships began last fall, Deputy Superintendent Tim Huth said.

"That cost us a little over a million dollars we did not budget for," said Mr. Huth, referring to state dollars that leave the district with the students. He added that the state does not provide a way for schools to identify the students who leave, which makes planning and budget decisions difficult.

"It is an unsettling time for the K-12 education system," he said.

While support for the expansion of the corporate-tax- credit scholarships appeared strong in the legislature, Florida's continuing march into new territory in school choice is raising many questions about the direction of education in the state.

Larry Keough, the education lobbyist for the Florida Catholic Conference, said his group has pulled its support of the corporate-tax-credit scholarships because the $3,500 scholarships are not enough to help many poor families pay for private school tuition.

Fees at the state's more reputable and established private schools often run much higher, and tuition at private middle and high schools can be higher than in elementary schools because of the courses and activities those schools usually offer.

"We will no longer support that disenfranchisement of children from poor working families in nonpublic schools," said Mr. Keough, who also is the associate director for education of the Tallahassee-based Catholic Conference.

Mr. Keough prefers unlimited school choice in Florida, but fears that scholarships funded at lower value might spur unpredictable growth in private schools, raising concerns about quality.

Deeper changes might have happened this year if the House had had its way. The House passed a bill that would have provided every Florida kindergartner with a tuition voucher. The Senate blocked that provision, insisting the state must spend the next year implementing a voter-approved amendment to revamp Florida's preschool system anyway.

Vol. 22, Issue 34, Pages 21,25

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