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Published in Print: May 10, 2006, as Governor’s Voucher Effort Loses Steam in Florida

Governor’s Voucher Effort Loses Steam in Florida

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Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is in a political dogfight with Democrats and members of his own party over proposals to help preserve Opportunity Scholarships and other voucher programs in the Sunshine State.

As of late last week, momentum was going against the two-term Republican, who will be term-limited out of office after this year.

Four Republicans joined with Democrats last month to defeat a plan backed by the governor to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would create a statewide voucher program. The 23-16 vote on April 28 fell one vote shy of the three-fifths majority needed to put such a vote to the public.

The plan was Gov. Bush’s effort to get around a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in January that found the Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional. ("Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional," Jan. 11, 2006)

Voucher proponents worry that without a constitutional amendment, Florida’s two other voucher programs—one for students with disabilities and another financed by private donations in return for state tax breaks—could also be vulnerable to legal challenges.

Under the proposed amendment, state-financed tuition vouchers would be available for students who “have disabilities or are economically disadvantaged, or meet other legislatively specified criteria.”

Voucher supporters did not immediately give up hope, though, that they could score a legislative win. Republican senators exercised a rarely used parliamentary procedure to get the measure back before the Senate late last week.

And they still held out hope for another strategy discussed early in the legislative session: legislation that calls for moving recipients of Opportunity Scholarships to the statewide voucher program that is underwritten by private donations.

GOP Divisions

The voucher issue revealed deep divisions among key Republicans.

In comments before a Cabinet meeting last week, Gov. Bush blamed internal GOP politics for the failure of the Senate to approve the resolution on a constitutional amendment.

“This was not a vote about school choice, trust me. It was about people’s feelings being hurt. It was about personal pride, it was about a dysfunctional Republican caucus,” the governor said, according to an audio record. “They are here to serve, to advocate ideas and to advance an agenda, hopefully in concert with the House and the governor’s office.”

The political fallout was almost immediate, at least for one senator.

Senate Majority Leader J. Alex Villalobos, a moderate Republican from Miami, cast the deciding vote against the constitutional-amendment plan. He and three other Republicans lined up with most of the chamber’s Democrats in opposition.

Sen. Villalobos, whose wife is a public school teacher, also played a part in defeating another piece of the governor’s education package—a plan to loosen K-12 class-size requirements voters approved in a 2002 ballot initiative. Mr. Villalobos, who was poised to become Senate president in two years, was one of six Republicans voting against that proposal.

His willingness to break ranks with fellow Republicans cost him his leadership position. Shortly after the votes, Senate President Tom Lee removed Mr. Villalobos as majority leader and gave the post to Sen. Daniel Webster, a conservative Republican from Winter Garden who wrote the voucher resolution.

Tax-Credit Route?

In decision handed down Jan. 5, the state supreme court ruled 5-3 that the Opportunity Scholarships program, which pays tuition at secular and religious private schools for about 730 students from certain low-performing public schools, is unconstitutional because it violates the state constitution’s provision requiring a “uniform” system of public education. The program, championed by Gov. Bush, was enacted in 1999.

The court directed the state to stop the program when the current school year is over. That means that the students in the program will have to return to public schools or find money for tuition from elsewhere.

But a proposal under consideration late last week by the Senate would allow those students to transfer into a voucher program that provides tax credits to donors who contribute to organizations that provide the vouchers.

The constitutionality of that program, which serves about 15,000 students, has not been tested in the state courts.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t challenge it in the courts,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. The FEA, which has led the legal fight against vouchers, is an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Mr. Pudlow added that the same objections the supreme court has to the Opportunity Scholarships program would probably apply to the corporate-tax-credit scholarship fund.

“I think we’re going to be looking at it,” he said.

PHOTO: Florida Sen. Daniel Webster explains a school voucher bill during a Senate session May 2 in Tallahassee. The issue has divided Republican leaders.
—Phil Coale/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 36, Page 22

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