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    House's solution: hand out vouchers

    To cut class size, the House votes to increase the number of vouchers given out. The Senate says no way.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - The Florida House on Friday approved a plan to carry out the public demand for smaller classes by dramatically expanding school vouchers.

    Senators scoffed at the approach. Democrats said it would hurt public schools. But Republicans who wrote the House plan say they want to give parents as many choices as possible.

    "It is my abiding belief that government cannot be all things to all people," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, an architect of the House proposal. "The idea is to empower parents to make decisions for their children."

    For the first time, the House would offer $3,500-a-year vouchers to every kindergartener in the state and to the children of military personnel. Parents who home-school their children would benefit from a $4,800 voucher if the student enrolls in a "virtual school" in grades kindergarten through 8. The voucher is bigger to cover the cost of a home computer and high-speed online access. The money would go directly to a private company running a "virtual school," not the parents.

    The House also would double to $100-million a program that gives tax credits to businesses that provide vouchers to low-income children to go to private or religious schools. Democrats said the program lacks accountability.

    Democrats said the vouchers looked like part of the "devious plans" for reducing class sizes that Gov. Jeb Bush spoke of during an unguarded moment during his re-election campaign last fall.

    "This is the largest expansion of voucher programs in the history of this country," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee. "It has a consequence of tearing away at the foundation of our public school system."

    The House also endorsed the idea of reducing the number of credits needed to graduate from high school from 24 to 18, and allowing students to graduate in three years instead of four - both to create more classroom space.

    But most of the debate concerned vouchers.

    The vote in the House was 77-38. Every Democrat present voted no, as did two Republicans, Reps. Nancy Detert of Venice and Heather Fiorentino of New Port Richey.

    "I think every voucher they could think of is in there, and they're taking away some of the money from the public schools," said Fiorentino, a longstanding opponent of vouchers. "I told (House supporters of the bill) that you can have my vote after you fix it, or after the Senate chews you up and spits you out."

    That could happen.

    Asked if the House's voucher program would get through his chamber, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, responded in a word: "No."

    The only voucher expansion the Senate favors is the corporate tax credit, which would increase from $50-million to $75-million. The Senate approved that Friday by a vote of 26-11, but the rest of the House voucher agenda appears dead in the Senate.

    "A lot of the things they put in there could not pass over here, even if we wanted to," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.

    Even Bush, a staunch voucher advocate, said he is wary of vouchers for kindergarteners.

    He said that decision should wait until next year when the Legislature will implement another voter-approved initiative on prekindergarten education.

    "That question ought to be looked at in that time, not as it relates to the class size initiative," Bush said.

    Despite such reservations, the House class-size bill could be pivotal to bringing the session to a conclusion because it also contains one of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's top priorities: a $300-million plan to give bonuses to the best teachers.

    The Senate isn't proposing that, either.

    But Byrd said Friday: "It's probably one of the most important things that we're doing to do."

    Voters in November approved Amendment 9, requiring smaller classes. Classes must shrink, beginning next fall, by an average of two students per class until the goals are achieved by 2010. Bush urged Floridians to vote against the amendment, but they approved it anyway, despite his warnings that it would cost billions.

    Florida already has more students getting public money to attend private schools than any other state. Vouchers are eligible to students who attend schools that get two F's, students with learning disabilities and low-income children who are sponsored by corporations.

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