Florida lawmakers are expected to cast a final vote this week on an education plan that would give students in failing public schools state-paid vouchers to attend any qualified private, religious, or public school.
With the closing day of the legislative session scheduled for April 30, selected members of both chambers worked under the gun last week to pound out major differences in their competing plans for a statewide voucher program that, if passed, would become the first of its kind in the country.
Supporters of Gov. Jeb Bush’s “A+ for Education” package, which would assign letter grades to individual schools based on state test scores and other factors, predicted that the House version of the plan would prevail. That plan, passed last month, more closely mirrors the Republican governor’s proposal for a wide-ranging approach to giving vouchers of up to $5,000 a year to students in schools that receive an F two out of every four years.
The Senate version, which passed earlier this month by a 26-14 vote, would severely limit the number of students eligible for the vouchers and require more accountability from private schools that accept state dollars.
“Almost all of the issues can be worked out easily,” said Randy Lewis, a spokesman for Floridians for School Choice, a group lobbying for a broad-based voucher plan. “We expect that most of the [restrictive provisions] will be stripped from the bill.”
The Senate debate and subsequent vote, meanwhile, proved to be a partial victory for voucher opponents facing almost unbeatable odds. In addition to a Republican governor, the Florida legislature has GOP majorities in both houses.
Under an amendment introduced by Republican Sen. Jim King and passed by six votes, the Senate plan would provide vouchers only to those students in failing schools who scored in the bottom quartile of state test-takers. If included in the final legislation, the clause could effectively cut in half the number of eligible students, observers said. Currently, students at only four schools would qualify for vouchers under the plan, but the number would likely jump significantly as the state implements tougher test standards this spring.
The Senate bill also would require private schools agreeing to accept voucher dollars to follow the same basic curriculum requirements imposed on public schools and to provide age-appropriate textbooks to students. Another amendment stipulates that teachers in those schools meet basic qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree, three years of teaching experience, or expertise in a special field.
The amendments prove the Senate wants to ensure some type of accountability, said David Clark of the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, a National Education Association affiliate. Many of the senators “know what a Pandora’s box this is,” he said. “You knew there were some of them holding their noses as they were casting that vote.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Fla. Lawmakers Poised To Decide Fate of Voucher Plan