Gov. Jeb Bush calls this year’s Florida legislative session the most important in many years. The Republican hopes to persuade lawmakers to approve the state’s fourth and largest set of school vouchers, raise teacher pay, and back his push to curb the class-size limits adopted by state voters.
“We’ve already made a real difference, by redirecting an education system that was subtly teaching our children where they come from is more important than where they’re going,” Gov. Bush said last week in his next-to-last State of the State Address on March 7.
But Democrats had a different take.
“Floridians today heard the governor say the state of the state is ‘stronger than ever.’ Which leaves us wondering, are there two Floridas?” asked Rep. Chris Smith, the House Democratic leader. He went on to criticize the governor’s plan to overturn the class-size reduction measure, pointing out that the state already has very large high school class sizes and a low graduation rate.
The most controversial of Gov. Bush’s proposals is a voucher plan called the Reading Compact Scholarship. Under the plan, students who scored in the lowest category on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test—Level 1—for three straight years would be eligible for state money they could use to pay tuition in private or public schools of their choice.
The scholarships would range from about $3,815 in grades 4 and 5, to $3,771 for grades 4-8, to $4,257 for high school, according to the state education department.
Legislative researchers were working on estimates of how many students might use the vouchers and the possible costs to the state or local school systems from the aid.
Florida’s three programs that directly or indirectly finance tuition at private schools are McKay Scholarships for special education students, Opportunity Scholarships for students in chronically low-performing schools, and tax-credit scholarships for low-income families.
Read the text of Gov. Bush’s address.
Republican lawmakers, who control both legislative chambers, say the plan could pass. Speaker of the House Allan George Bense backs it, along with most other Republicans in the lower chamber, said Towson Fraser, a spokesman for Mr. Bense.
“There’s going to be debate over some statistics in the bill,” Mr. Fraser said, “but there’s pretty broad support.”
A House version of the governor’s plan would send Reading Compact Scholarship aid to students more quickly than the governor would. But one catch, especially in the more moderate Senate, could be the funding implications. Mr. Fraser said lawmakers still had to sort out the amount of aid districts might lose if students transferred out of their home systems with the vouchers.
Still, House Republicans are hopeful the details will come together soon. “I think that particular proposal definitely makes sense to a lot of Republicans, and some Democrats can see value in it as well,” Mr. Fraser said of Gov. Bush’s plan.
But Sen. Frederica S. Wilson, the Democratic Whip, said, “I will fight vouchers tooth and nail. We have a Republican majority right now, and they tend to walk in step with the governor. But many Republicans are against [vouchers].” The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on May 6.
Education policy groups in Florida are concerned about some of Gov. Bush’s plans, but back him on others.
The Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is opposing the Reading Compact Scholarship plan.
In part, the union cites a pending court challenge to Florida’s Opportunity Scholarships, which give tuition aid to help students in low-performing schools transfer to other public or private schools, including religious schools. (“Florida Vouchers Dealt Another Legal Blow,” Nov., 24, 2004.)
The Supreme Court of Florida is considering whether to uphold a lower-court decision overturning state payments to religious schools under the voucher program. At issue is whether the state constitution bars such an exchange between government and religious institutions.
But some district chiefs back Gov. Bush’s plan to seek a new public vote on Florida’s class-size restrictions, which were enacted over the governor’s objections in a 2002 ballot initiative that amended the state’s constitution.
In his speech, Gov. Bush argued that the class-size limits had cost the state $2 billion already, and that the costs would spiral upward in coming years.
He urged lawmakers to let voters choose whether to amend the constitution to allow some curbs on the class-size limits. He has asked the legislature to approve a ballot question that would let districts use average class sizes, rather than specific caps for each class. That change would give schools more flexibility and save money for personnel and classroom space, he argued last week.
The voter-approved caps, which are slated to go into effect by 2010, would require no more than 18 pupils in kindergarten through 3rd grade, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school.
Mr. Bush sought to broaden the appeal of his education agenda by pushing to set the state’s minimum salary for starting teachers at $35,000, up from about $31,000.
Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association in Tallahassee, says the governor stands a good chance of getting legislative support for his class-size caps and plans to address teacher salaries.
He faces a tougher battle on vouchers. “The legislature has been hesitant to address a major issue that is pending before the Florida supreme court,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week