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Voucher clause survives panel's class-size vote

The House bill faces two more committees before reaching the floor.

By Associated Press
Published April 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - A House panel approved a bill Monday to reduce the size of classes in public schools by letting districts give vouchers and give students diplomas after three years in high school.

The K-20 Committee approved the legislation on a 17-10 vote along largely party lines after defeating amendments by Democrats to delete the voucher language and other provisions.

The bill (HB 703) must be considered by two more committees before reaching the floor.

The legislation would let school districts give students a $3,500 voucher to attend private school, create a voucher program for kindergarten and double the size of a $50-million tax credit program that rewards businesses for donating to scholarships for poor children.

Rep. Joe Pickens, the Palatka Republican who sponsored the bill, said the idea was to give school districts a dozen different ways to lower class sizes.

"Many of the things that people debated against are optional," he said.

But Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, said the bill reminded him of Gov. Jeb Bush's comment last fall that he had "devious plans" to defeat the intent of the class size proposal.

"This bill does not address what the will of the voters intended when they passed the class size amendment," Richardson said, calling the options given to districts "poisonous."

Richardson said he had the most concern over a part of the legislation that is mandatory, not optional: Districts that don't already meet the class size standards must hold public hearings this summer over their school attendance boundaries.

That would raise the "consternation and ire of parents," Richardson said.

Rep. Shelley Vana, D-West Palm Beach, argued unsuccessfully against provisions that cut the time for a credit hour from 135 minutes to 120 minutes and created an "accelerated high school graduation option" option.

Under current law, a high school diploma requires 24 credits. A provision in the bill would allow parents and students to opt for a three-year program of 18 credits.

Vana and other opponents said that lowered the state's standards; Pickens said the choice was one for parents and students to make.

A couple of Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill, criticizing the committee for voting without hearing more than a dozen amendments and hearing no testimony from the public.

"This bill's way too important for that," said Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey.

The full Senate unanimously approved its class size plan, which does not include an expansion of vouchers, two weeks ago.

In November, voters approved a ballot measure that limits the number of students that can be assigned to a public schoolteacher starting in 2010 to 18 for prekindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grades and 25 in high school.

Between now and then, lawmakers must provide the money to reduce the average class size by two students per year.

[Last modified April 1, 2003, 05:30:55]

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