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    Voucher bill heads to full House

    The measure could award vouchers to any pupil who wants to go to private school.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 15, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- A radical measure to give a private school voucher to any public school student who wants it sailed through its only committee stop Thursday and is headed for the House chamber floor.

    The bill, called the "No Strings Attached Act," would give school districts that participate greater say in how to spend the tax dollars they get from Tallahassee. In return, any student who wants to attend a private school or different public school would get a check from the state.

    But the measure is opposed by Gov. Jeb Bush and faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

    Senate President John McKay described himself as a longstanding proponent of vouchers, but said he has reservations about the proposal, especially if it turns out to be a "blank check" for vouchers.

    "I don't know if it is manageable by the Department of Education," McKay said.

    In an interview, Bush said he doesn't doubt the intentions of bill proponent Rep. Johnnie Byrd, but that "at this time, that proposal is not the right one."

    Bush has pushed to give school districts more spending flexibility and supports that part of the bill, simply not the voucher portion, a Bush spokeswoman added.

    Bush would have been in the minority at the House Council for Lifelong Learning, where Republicans beat back a series of amendments Democrats proposed to soften the bill, including one that would have required private schools that accept vouchers to accept any student regardless of past academic achievement, just as public schools do.

    Only six minutes of the meeting were devoted to public comment, and the three speakers who testified all opposed the plan.

    Florida Education Association lobbyist Marshall Ogletree suggested the bill provided a financial incentive to parents of private school students to enroll their children in public school for the minimum time required -- one year -- and then return them to private school using a voucher to subsidize tuition. He also said the staff analysis that said the bill wouldn't cost the state any more money was incomplete.

    Under the bill, school districts could decide to offer the vouchers in exchange for more flexibility in spending and less oversight by the state. For example, schools that offer the vouchers, called Freedom Scholarships, would not be graded under Bush's A+

    Plan for education unless 50 percent of all parents want the grade.

    Students who transfer to private schools do not have to take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT, as public students now must do.

    It remains to be seen whether this proposal is a serious attempt to expand the state's voucher program or a negotiating tool House Republicans are lining up to use for leverage against the Senate later in the legislative session.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney said he hasn't decided when to schedule the bill for a floor vote. And he acknowledged Bush would prefer the bill if it were all flexibility and no voucher. But Feeney said before he gives that kind of spending power to schools, he wants parents to have the same level of flexibility when overseeing their children's education.

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