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    Class size bill: more vouchers, faster diplomas?

    The House version may include voucher expansions and an accelerated high school program.

    ©Associated Press
    April 24, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- Parents could get vouchers to send their children to private kindergartens, and high school students could earn diplomas in three years under a class size reduction bill the House debated Wednesday.

    The legislation (CS-SB 1436) came to the House floor for questions and amendments. A final vote could come this week.

    The Senate passed its class size measure last month. It doesn't include the same voucher expansions featured in the House proposal or the three-year high school degree program.

    Lawmakers have just one week left in the two-month legislative session to agree on a plan to implement the class size reduction ordered by voters in November.

    The ballot measure caps the number of students to be assigned to a classroom teacher in 2010. It also requires the state to give school districts enough money to start reducing the average class size by two students this fall.

    The caps that take effect in eight years are 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

    Under the House proposal, students and parents could opt for an "accelerated high school graduation" option and be awarded a diploma after earning 18 credits in three years. Graduation now requires 24 credits.

    The Senate plan does not include that provision, but both bills would reduce the time required for a credit from 135 hours to 120 hours.

    Other provisions of the House plan would:

    Create a $3,500 voucher program for children to attend private kindergarten programs.

    Let school districts opt to give students a $3,500 voucher to attend private school.

    Allow a K-8 virtual school, with $4,800 per student.

    Double the size of a $50-million tax credit program that gives businesses a credit for donations they make to scholarships for poor children.

    The Senate bill does not include the general voucher option for districts, the kindergarten vouchers or the K-8 virtual school -- but the upper chamber is supporting an expansion of the tax credit program for businesses that fund scholarships. The Senate, however, is moving a separate bill that would raise the $50-million limit to $75-million.

    The House considered some two dozen amendments to the bill Wednesday. One amendment passed by a one-vote margin -- 54-53 -- would lift restrictions on how school districts spend the money they get for textbook purchases.

    Supporters argued that the language would give districts the same flexibility they already have with other spending accounts, including transportation, safe schools and technology. Opponents argued the restrictions were needed to make sure students have textbooks.

    But most of the amendments were offered by Democrats opposed to the voucher expansion and the reductions in credit hours and graduation requirements.

    "Every single thing we've been talking about today reduces the quality of education," Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said. "They dumb down our schools."

    Rep. Joe Pickens, the Palatka Republican who sponsored the class size bill, defended the voucher expansions as giving parents the right to make the best choices for their children.

    Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he was tired of the "tirade against vouchers."

    The Democrats' efforts failed.

    One of the last amendments considered would have deleted the provision allowing districts to use vouchers to lower class sizes.

    It failed on a 73-41 vote.

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    From the Times state desk