Florida Voucher Plan Stirs Continuing Controversy

 

No one ever said running the first-ever statewide voucher program would be easy, and Florida's has certainly experienced its share of problems.

The Florida Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, teachers' unions, school board members and parents argued, among other things, that the program should be suspended because uncertainty over its future is disruptive to the students participating.

Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. disagreed and allowed the program to continue while the case is being appealed.

The legal wrangling prompted billionaire New York financier Ted Forstmann , a longstanding school-choice proponent, to promise he'd pay the tuition for Florida's 52 voucher students should the program be shut down.

Forstmann heads the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), a private national voucher foundation that helped Florida students -- 625 in Miami and 750 in the Tampa area -- to attend private schools this year.

Forstmann's gesture led to additional controversy -- earlier this month the St. Petersburg Times reported that he had revoked his pledge. However, CSF says the pledge was never rescinded.

Florida's Education Department and a pro-voucher group known as Floridians for School Choice will send letters to the parents of children in failing schools, letting them know that the voucher program has not been halted by the ongoing appeals court battle.

Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's "A Plus Plan for Education" law provides vouchers worth up to $4,000 to any student attending a school that the state has given a failing grade twice within four years. Last year, only two public schools in Pensacola lost students to vouchers, but it is expected that as many as 78 additional failing public schools may lose students to vouchers this year. That could make up to 78,000 students eligible for vouchers in the upcoming school year.

Anticipating that possibility, 118 private Florida schools have offered to take on voucher students.

Florida began grading public schools last year, as part of its `A Plus' law. "As soon as we started to grade schools `A' to `F,' all of a sudden people knew this was a failing school and they knew the children weren't learning to write or compute," said Republican state Sen. Anna Cowin, who sponsored the `A Plus' legislation.

Test scores of voucher students have been another source of contention; Florida has decided to keep the scores confidential because they might be linked to a student. The Florida chapter of the National Education Association has taken issue with the decision. "The two biggest experiments--charter schools and vouchers -- we have no accountability whatsoever," Cathy Kelly, assistant executive director with the teachers union FTP-NEA, told the St.Petersburg Times .

At least one study claims Florida's voucher program is spurring poor and mediocre schools to improve their performance. Co-sponsored by the Washington, D.C.based Institute for Justice , a pro-voucher organization, "Competing to Win: How Florida's A Plan Has Triggered Public School Reform" examined improvement plans laid out by failing Sunshine State schools.

In addition, The New York Times reported that the two Pensacola schools that lost students in the first round of vouchers have taken steps to improve their performance, including shrinking the curriculum and lowering class size.

Some analysts say it is too early to draw conclusions because the Florida program isn't even a year old yet, and it is difficult to assess whether Florida's school-grading system or vouchers have brought about improvements.

The voucher case will go before a Florida appeals court Aug. 16.

In school voucher developments elsewhere:

  • In April, the Sangamon County Circuit Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Education Association challenging the constitutionality of a tax credit law. Illinois lawmakers had approved a plan that will give parents who pay private school tuition a tax break up to $500 for tuition, books or lab fees.
  • Milwaukee has seen an increase in the number of students using vouchers as 22 new non-public schools join the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and more than 10,000 voucher students attend 114 non-sectarian and religious private schools next year.
  • In November, Michigan voters will decide on a ballot measure that would bring a limited voucher program to the state.
 
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