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House salutes voucher bill for those serving in military

©Associated Press
March 26, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- Children of military personnel could get private school vouchers under a bill the House passed Tuesday, as supporters said offering free private education was the least the state could do for soldiers fighting in Iraq.

The measure passed 74-42, but still needs approval by the Senate.

The bill (HB 805) expands an existing program giving businesses tax credits to provide scholarships, or vouchers, for children to attend private schools.

Currently the program is available to low-income children who are eligible for free school lunches. The bill would expand that to provide vouchers for any child of U.S. armed services veterans and active and reserve military.

The proposal is sponsored by Eustis Republican Rep. Carey Baker, who is serving in the Persian Gulf region on active duty with the Florida National Guard.

Passage came after opponents said the proposal would divert needed money from public schools. Supporters implied that to oppose it was unpatriotic.

"There are those who are paying with their lives today. How in the world could you argue that we should not offer them the opportunity to take care of their children?" said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration.

Some opponents of the measure said they were outraged that their patriotism was questioned when they have always been against vouchers. Florida has a general voucher program allowing children whose schools are deemed to be failing to go to private schools with state money.

Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, presenting the measure on behalf of Baker, tried to discourage making the debate about patriotism. He argued it was simply a way to offer another group of parents a choice.

"This bill tells our veterans that if you are smart enough to run the Apache helicopters ... you must be able to make a decision on behalf of your child," said Attkisson.

There's no Senate version of the bill filed, but Attkisson said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, plans to sponsor one.

The vote was mostly on party lines with Republicans supporting it and Democrats against it, but four GOP representatives opposed it. Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, was one of them. She is a teacher, and argued that public schools on military bases would lose federal dollars if the measure passes.

Florida's original voucher program for children in failing schools is tied up in a nearly 4-year-old legal fight over whether it is prohibited by a section of the Florida Constitution banning the use of public money "in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

A Tallahassee trial judge threw the law creating vouchers out, saying they do violate that provision, and the matter is now on appeal, although children receiving them can continue to use them while the matter goes through the courts.

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