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Fighting On in Florida

Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne has been feeling the heat lately. The state's high-profile school voucher system is suffering through two scandals, drawing the ire of Democrats and even some of the commissioner's fellow Republicans.

During an interview in Washington last week, Mr. Horne had harsh words for his harshest critics—even if he doesn't expect them to be silenced.

"You have to see this for the political dimensions that it is. It is the liberal attack dogs who generally oppose any kind of conservative education reform," said the commissioner, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Mr. Horne was in town meeting with officials at the Center for Education Reform, a research and advocacy group that supports school choice, to share ideas about how tuition vouchers might work in the nation's capital. A voucher plan for the District of Columbia is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Horne said school choice is alive and well in Florida, despite the recent problems. The two voucher-related scandals have been "overreported" in the press, he contended.

First, a nonprofit scholarship group in Ocala that received $400,000 from the state is accused of spending none of it on tuition for needy students. "That has turned into a criminal investigation," Mr. Horne said. ("Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules," Sept. 17, 2003.)

Also, two men with ties to an Islamic school in Tampa that received funding from a state-sponsored tuition- scholarship program have been accused of using the school as a front to raise money for terrorists overseas. Mr. Horne said he would consider restoring state money to the private school, but only if it's proved that those "ties have been broken."

In response, Mr. Horne plans to offer legislation that would require scholarship groups that handle voucher money to file quarterly financial reports with the state. He also now agrees that private schools receiving public money should be required to test students and make the results known to the public.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said that it's more than "liberal attack dogs" who oppose some of the commissioner's policies.

"It's unfair to see that when it comes to money for private schools or vouchers, that there is practically no accountability," Mr. Pudlow said.

Looks as if the heat may not be subsiding soon.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 23, Issue 6, Page 18

Published in Print: October 8, 2003, as State Journal

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