Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida wants a major new voucher program for students who score at the bottom on state assessments for three consecutive years.
If approved by the legislature, the tuition aid would be in addition to the state’s three other statewide voucher programs. Gov. Bush announced the plan at the Florida Capitol last week as part of a larger, broad-based package aimed at improving education.
He called the new set of proposals the “A-plus-plus plan for education,” building on his 1999 A+ plan that gave schools letter grades and created the Opportunity Scholarships voucher program for students in failing schools. About 700 students are currently using those vouchers.
The new program would target students who score a 1, out of a possible 5, on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for three years in a row. Students who score a 3 are considered “proficient.” About 170,000 students have failed the tests for at least three years in a row, according to state data. The state assessment, known as the FCAT, is given to students in grades 3-10.
Under Gov. Bush’s plan, parents would be able to use the new “Reading Compact” vouchers at another public or participating private or religious school of their choice.The plan did not state how much the vouchers would be worth.
“If a school is not able to provide the type of instruction a child needs, [the plan would] allow parents to choose one that does,” Gov. Bush said.
The move comes at a time when one of the state’s existing voucher programs, the Opportunity Scholarships, has been found by two state courts to violate the Florida Constitution and will be considered by the Florida Supreme Court this spring. (“Appeals Court Strikes Down Florida Voucher Program,” Aug. 16, 2004.)
In making the announcement, however, Gov. Bush and GOP lawmakers downplayed the voucher portion of the package and focused instead on new initiatives that had already been announced, including a plan to redesign the state’s voter-approved class-size-reduction plan and raise the minimum starting salary for teachers.
But voucher opponents were quick to point out that the Opportunity Scholarship program still has to pass muster with the state supreme court, and if it does not, that could doom all voucher efforts in the state.
“It seems to us to be a much better tactic or policy for the state to let the courts make a final determination on [vouchers] before greatly expanding the program,” said Mark Pudlow, the spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s very clear in the Florida Constitution that this type of program is not allowed.”
Array of Proposals
The governor’s wide-ranging education package contains a number of other parts. They include:
Creating a statewide professional-development program for principals that would provide training and support for best practices and awards for high-performing principals;
Increasing funds and enhancements for reading programs, including more reading coaches in schools, summer reading camps, better instructional materials, and online professional development for teachers;
Implementing middle school changes to foster more rigor by aligning grading standards and course requirements with those already in place in high school;
Permanently allowing the use of the ACT or SAT college-entrance exam in place of the 10th grade state assessment; and
Directing the state education department to release studies on the effectiveness of teachers who have graduated from local colleges or have received certification through alternative means.
Gov. Bush also highlighted his plan, announced last month, for skirting the class-size-reduction mandate approved by voters in 2002 by offering to ease the transition to smaller classes by allowing each district to use the average class size across the district rather than the caps passed by voters. Those 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.
The plan, which the legislature must put before the voters, provides a minimum salary of $35,000 a year to beginning teachers and a tiered pay scale for more experienced teachers.
“We are offering a balance of higher teacher pay and smaller class sizes controlled by local school boards,” said Rep. John Stargel, a Republican who is sponsoring the legislation.
But Mr. Pudlow of the teachers’ union said the governor’s plan was misleading, given that the average beginning teacher’s salary in Florida is more than $31,000 and already tops $35,000 in some urban areas.
The FEA wants Mr. Bush to first implement the original class-size plan, then consider a pay plan that would help raise salaries for all school employees, not just new teachers.
“This will do nothing for those teachers [already making $35,000 a year] and does nothing for veteran teachers, and nothing for other school employees,” Mr. Pudlow said. “We believe that compensation is a big issue and needs to be addressed across the board.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Gov. Bush Wants 170,000 More Vouchers for Florida