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School voucher overhaul left to governor's office

State education officials do not have a timeline for implementing accountability standards, which are undetermined.

Published May 4, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Days after political posturing killed a hotly debated plan to increase oversight of Florida's voucher programs, Gov. Jeb Bush and state education officials have vowed to accomplish much of the same goal via executive orders.

Bush's pledge comes six months after he and Education Secretary Jim Horne unveiled proposed legislation to improve accountability. Their push came in response to embarrassing revelations about Florida's two largest voucher programs - the McKay Scholarship for disabled children and the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income kids.

More than 24,000 former public school students now attend private schools on vouchers. More than half of the vouchers are being used at unaccredited private schools.

A report in December by state chief financial officer Tom Gallagher - along with other criminal investigations and one arrest - has raised questions about the voucher programs' susceptibility to abuse.

"I would like to see (the voucher) accountability (bill) pass," Bush said before lawmakers adjourned late Friday. "But if not, we'll implement most of these reforms ourselves."

Department of Education officials said Monday they don't have a timeline or plan for implementing new private school standards pushed by lawmakers. Nor have they said which version of the accountability plan - the House's or the Senate's - they will draw upon.

Generally, legislative plans had called for sharpening the definition of eligible students, revising criteria for forfeiture of a student's scholarship, demanding some form of standardized assessment of a student's progress and setting tougher financial standards for private schools to participate.

The Department of Education also would have the authority to sanction private schools that failed to comply.

But in the final days of the session, House and Senate negotiators couldn't agree on what shape changes should take.

Senate President Jim King said he had one last chance to pass the Senate's plan when House Speaker Johnnie Byrd made an overture about 11 p.m. Friday.

Byrd's proposal: The House would take the Senate's accountability plan if the upper chamber would embrace Byrd's bid to rescind telephone rate hike legislation passed last year.

"I don't think there was anything as high on his list of wants," said King, who had fought Byrd's telephone bill all session. "There was still just no way we would do it."

Senate sponsor Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, said the voucher programs are still in better shape than they were a year ago.

"The fact that the department is going to be looking at this, it makes me a lot more comfortable," Constantine said. The quickest changes may come not from government but from an umbrella group of private fundraisers that accounts for nearly all the 12,000 students attending private schools under the corporate tax program.

The Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations pledged after the session that it will strengthen its own requirements for private schools that can qualify to enroll voucher-financed students. Among the new requirements: requiring criminal background checks on school employees with unrestricted access to children, requiring that new schools post a surety bond to safeguard the state's investment should they go bankrupt, standardized tests for voucher students and a preference for teachers with bachelor's or higher degrees.

"While statewide standards are always ideal, sometimes politics makes that difficult," said Denise Lasher, the group's spokeswoman.

[Last modified May 4, 2004, 01:00:24]

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