Gov Bush Briefs Congress on Florida Voucher Program
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- The other Bush, Jeb, governor of Florida, was in Washington Thursday testifying before a U.S. House panel about his education accountability plan.
Approximately four minutes into his maiden appearance before Congress, Bush used the "V" word. In education, 'V' stands for voucher, a hot button topic.
"I don't like the "V" word because the "V" word is used in politics," Bush said. He added: "Our effort is to improve all education."
To avoid the word, Bush calls Florida's statewide voucher program -- the first in the nation -- an "opportunity scholarship" program.
The House Budget Committee, chaired by John Kasich, an Ohio Republican and until recently a presidential hopeful, held the hearing to look at how states, localities and private citizens have been trying to improve schools. His committee has oversight over the education budget.
The Florida voucher program is tied to the rating of schools. If a school gets two failing grades from the state, students are offered vouchers, allowing them to attend other public schools or participating private schools.
This year, 134 Florida students left two chronically failing public schools. Seventy-six chose better performing public schools and 58 chose parochial or Montessori schools.
The Florida program is being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Florida Federation of Teachers, People for the American Way and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The lawsuit contends that vouchers violate the constitutional ban on establishment of religion because public money ends up going to religious schools.
Proponents argue that the money is given to parents and not the institutions.
Approximately half of the 134 students who left the failing schools had performed well and the other half had been low performers.
Eighty-five percent of those attending the failing schools were minorities and 81 percent participated in the free and reduced school lunch program, Bush said.
"This is not a welfare program for the rich. This is an empowerment program for the disadvantaged," he said. Bush added that the voucher program, combined with the grading of Florida schools, has sparked a "veritable renaissance" in public education.
Florida Rep Jim Davis, a Democrat, disagreed strongly with his state's Republican governor. Davis argued that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the exam being used to grade and rank the schools, is flawed.
"The new testing system will inevitably lead to more school failures, which means more vouchers, which means more students will be left to languish with less resources in failing schools," Davis said.
Bush said a school must have 60 percent of its students failing in reading, math and writing in order to get an "F" from the state.
"The beauty of our plan is that it is aligned with student achievement" and the hope is to one day not offer any vouchers, Bush said.