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Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as Supporters Debate Fla. Voucher Rules

Supporters Debate Fla. Voucher Rules

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Florida may be where school voucher proponents found their Wheel of Fortune, but an escalating debate there over regulating private schools that accept the tuition aid is beginning to look more like Family Feud.

The divisions among some of the state's stakeholders in the movement come as Florida lawmakers consider tightening regulations and academic accountability for the state's expansive mix of voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs.

"Some of the newcomers to the choice movement are very laissez- faire in their approach to accountability," said Larry Keough, the education associate for the Florida Catholic Conference in Tallahassee. "If we don't get it right in the next 16 months, ... then I fear that school choice will ultimately be viewed in Florida as a failed experiment."

Among the key players are longtime school choice supporters in Florida who say their voices are getting lost in the state's expanded circle of private school advocates, while others clearly have the ear of Gov. Jeb Bush and his advisers.

In a push to be heard, Mr. Keough, the lobbyist for the state's Roman Catholic schools and an early voucher supporter, has gone public with his belief that some private school boosters want to expand the voucher programs even at the cost of educational quality.

Without more oversight of participating private schools, he fears Florida's school choice programs will decline from a potential national model that serves 27,000 students into an embarrassing mess.

Denise Lasher runs the Tampa-based Florida Education Freedom Foundation, which represents organizations that administer scholarships financed under the state's program of corporate tax credits. She said most private schools that accept state-subsidized scholarships are reputable.

She downplayed the significance of bickering among various private school supporters and the governor's office. "Some people think or have this idea that we have fly-by-night schools," Ms. Lasher said. "On the big issue, we're all on the same page."

For public school lobbyists, the growing diversity of views among private school groups and an apparent rift between some of them and Gov. Bush's office could pave the way for new alliances and a chance to be heard more clearly on their opposition to vouchers.

"Many of these private school groups are competing more with each other than they are competing with public education," said Ruth H. Melton, the Florida School Boards Association's legislative director and one of the state's top education lobbyists.

For example, she said, Catholic schools favor "much more stringent accountability measures, where more entrepreneurial private school interests are resisting it with tremendous force and with political power."

Going Too Far?

Last fall, Commissioner of Education Jim Horne called together leading education lobbyists to draft a bill that would increase state oversight of private schools that accept Florida's three brands of tuition aid.

The programs include tuition vouchers for students who wish to leave some of the state's lowest-rated public schools, which can be worth about $4,000; the McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities whose parents want them to leave their regular public schools (the value of each scholarship depends on student need); and $3,500 corporate-tax-credit scholarships for students with lower family incomes. Mr. Horne was appointed by Gov. Bush, a Republican.

Lawmakers from both major parties called for more oversight of the voucher programs and schools that use them last year after the programs were rocked by two scandals. About $400,000 is missing from a scholarship group in Ocala, and two men were accused of raising money for terrorists using a private school in Tampa as a front.("Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules," Sept. 17, 2003).

Bills that would require more state oversight and mandate state tests for all students using the tuition-aid programs will be debated when the legislature gathers for its annual session in March.

Mr. Keough, who represents the nearly 200 Catholic schools that form the largest block of private schools that accept vouchers, said his proposal that all participating private schools be accredited by national organizations was shot down by Gov. Bush's staff and state education officials.

He also pushed for a rule to bar new schools from tapping state scholarship money during their first year of operation.

Mr. Keough's plans aren't part of the bill proposed by Commissioner Horne's office, which focuses more on regular financial reports and safety code compliance, among other measures. Overall, Gov. Bush's administration has been cautious about how much the state should interfere in private schools.

"It's fair to say that the administration has its accountability goals, and we have ours," Mr. Keough said.

He discounted the idea that an emerging group of newer private schools could threaten Catholic schools' enrollment or financial stability. Nearly 100,000 students attend Catholic schools statewide, and about 2,400 of them use the state tuition-aid programs.

"For the most part, we have not become dependent on these scholarship dollars," said Mr. Keough, who accuses newer groups of schools of leaning too heavily on the voucher programs. "We don't want people to have an incentive to create a school to be in a position to draw down funding."

Missing Links

The expanded circle of advocates includes the Florida Education Freedom Foundation, an association of eight nonprofit organizations that distribute tuition aid under Florida's most popular school choice program: the corporate-tax-credit scholarships.

The scholarships currently go to about 16,000 students, most of whom use the scholarships to attend private, often religious, schools. Money for the scholarships is gathered by the nonprofit organizations when businesses donate funds for scholarships in exchange for tax breaks.

Ms. Lasher said that most of the schools taking tax-credit scholarships do not depend as heavily on the funds as Mr. Keough suggests. She argued that true accountability comes from parents, not the state. Her group opposes Mr. Keough's proposal on national accreditation for private schools.

Her group, however, does not oppose testing in private schools that accept vouchers, as long as those schools can choose which tests they use. The scholarship organizations already require financial audits, and have backed some additional fiscal oversights proposed by the education commissioner.

Skardon Bliss, the executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, said that his Tampa-based group of about 158 well-established private schools supported Mr. Keough's accreditation plan, and that he worries about the quality of newer private schools.

But he said self-regulation among reputable private schools beats out any oversight the state could provide.

"In some cases, the [governor's] administration has accepted what we've proposed, and in some cases they haven't," Mr. Bliss said of talks with state officials on accountability. "But in general, they appear to have been walking a fine line between holding the schools and programs accountable, and not overly intruding too much into our business."

Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Gov. Bush, suggested that the dissenting views on accountability among education lobbyists, and between lobbyists and the administration, could strengthen school choice in Florida.

"Both the consensus and diversity of opinion among these groups have been essential in putting together the best possible recommendations for various reforms, such as those in the upcoming legislative proposal," Mr. DiPietre said in a written response to questions. "We don't expect all groups to agree on all things, nor would it be in the best interest of the students they serve if they did."

Others players in the Florida school choice movement argue that all the debate is necessary.

"I see these differences as inevitable, healthy, and not to be exaggerated," said Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, based in Miami. He helped push for some of the voucher programs and is a longtime advocate of school choice.

"You get to the good ideas by having them challenged, not by having everyone in agreement," Mr. Heffernan added. "Good for Florida."

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Pages 1,19

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