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Education commissioner concedes voucher failings

Jim Horne says he takes the blame for the mismanagement critics have identified within the program.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published November 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The state's top education official took responsibility Tuesday for embarrassing revelations about Florida's school voucher programs but said his office is getting the problems under control.

"There are things I'm not proud of that we've missed," Education Commissioner Jim Horne told members of the state Board of Education.

"If you don't believe it's managed real well, the blame is with me," he said. "We will make sure these programs are more effective."

Horne's comments were his most candid acknowledgement yet of shortcomings in the way his department has managed the school choice programs.

More than 24,000 Florida schoolchildren participate in one of the state's three voucher programs. The majority, about 11,500, are in the newest program - the Corporate Tax Credit program for low-income children.

A small number of high-profile problems have prompted critics to complain the state isn't keeping a tight enough rein on the programs.

A scholarship funding organization in Ocala, for example, is now under criminal investigation. Law enforcement is trying to discover what happened to $168,000 that was supposed to be spent on vouchers for low-income children but disappeared.

In July, voucher funding was cut off to an Islamic school in Tampa. The school was co-founded by Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor alleged to have terrorist ties.

The problems have been highlighted in newspaper reports and explored by a Senate task force. They have been investigated by the Department of Education, Florida's chief financial officer and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

During a workshop Tuesday, Horne's new director of school choice gave a detailed report on the status of Florida's voucher programs. The new executive director, Theresa Klebacha, is the seventh person to head the choice office in the past three years.

Klebacha began her report by saying, "We've heard the good and the bad, and also there's ugly out there."

The Board of Education's discussion on school choice was initiated by board member Linda Eads, who has a strong interest in charter schools. But it shifted quickly into questions and answers about the state's voucher programs.

Horne has proposed a package of changes that would tighten controls over the programs. But board member Bill Proctor said he is concerned the reforms don't go far enough. For instance, Proctor wants students who use vouchers at private schools to take the FCAT so their academic progress can be evaluated.

"If they're going to take state money, maybe they ought to take the FCAT," Proctor said. Horne has proposed that private schools be required to give a standardized test to students taking vouchers, but he has not called for them to take the FCAT.

Board member T. Willard Fair said he is concerned the reforms might go too far.

"I hope we don't create a set of rules that make it more difficult" for private schools and charter schools to be innovative, Fair said. "I think that's where we're going. Accountability might be a disguise for adaptability, making everyone adapt."

Much of the workshop involved presentations from icons within the school choice movement. Their appearance in Tallahassee highlighted the importance of Florida's programs on the national scene.

Their ranks included David Brennan, who helped establish one of the nation's first voucher programs in Cleveland; John Kirtley, the Tampa businessman who runs one of Florida's scholarship funding organizations and serves as president of Children First America; Lawrence Patrick, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options; and Marcus Winters, a research associate with the Manhattan Institute.

At the conclusion of Klebacha's presentation, Board of Education chairman Phil Handy asked her, "Are you on top of this stuff?"

"Absolutely," Klebacha replied.

"It's important to us that somebody is," Handy said.

[Last modified November 19, 2003, 01:31:55]


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