Vouchers big part of Bush package
The governor says students who keep struggling with FCAT reading should be able to attend private school.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published February 24, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - More than 170,000 Florida students have flunked the state's reading test three years in a row, a record that Gov. Jeb Bush thinks should qualify them for a voucher to a private school.
His "Reading Compact Scholarship" is part of a broad new education package that Bush presented Wednesday. It would give a taxpayer-funded voucher to any student who scores at the lowest level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for three consecutive years.
"A parent's ability to decide on the best school for their child should not be based on their income level," Bush said at the announcement, where he was surrounded by top education officials and legislators. "School choice has been a catalyst for public school improvement."
The package is being presented as an extension of Bush's "A-Plus" plan, the 1999 program that made accountability the centerpiece of Florida's education efforts. It already has been nicknamed the "A-Plus-Plus" plan.
But Democrats and other critics say the voucher bill doesn't do enough to track student performance because students who move to private school aren't required to take standardized tests like the FCAT.
"They could be fingerpainting all day at private school for all we know," said Rep. Chris Smith, the House Democratic leader. "If you're going to spend taxpayer dollars, you ought to have some form of accountability."
Bush is sending his proposal to lawmakers even as the state Supreme Court prepares to decide the constitutionality of vouchers.
A trial judge and the 1st District Court of Appeal have ruled that Florida's voucher law violates the state Constitution by allowing state dollars to be spent on religious schools. The Supreme Court is expected to take up the matter in the spring.
"We all have our roles to play," Bush said. "The judiciary has a role to determine the constitutionality of laws. In the interim, we have a duty to reform our system. And this is an integral part of the next step of our reforms."
Other measures in Bush's package include:
Requiring school districts to increase pay to teachers who fill shortages in particular subjects or who work under adverse conditions, such as a high-crime area.
Making portions of the FCAT available to parents, to eliminate some of the "mystique" surrounding the test.
Moving the 10th-grade science FCAT to 11th grade so students can finish the three science courses required for graduation.
Allowing the SAT and ACT to be used in place of the 10th grade FCAT.
The plan also includes a provision to increase the pay of beginning teachers. If voters soften the class size amendment, starting pay would rise to $35,000. A teacher who makes more than $33,000 would get a $2,000 raise.
The pay increases would cost $500-million, Bush estimated. About $10-million is budgeted for the rest of the package.
But it was the voucher program that garnered most of the attention Wednesday.
There are about 2.6-million children enrolled in Florida's public schools. About 7 percent would qualify for one of Bush's Reading Compact scholarships.
Bush estimated about 6 percent of those students would take advantage of the program if it was passed by the Legislature. That would mean about 10,000 students would leave the public school system for private schools.
The program would dramatically increase the size of Florida's voucher efforts. About 25,000 students receive vouchers under one of the state's three programs. If Bush's estimate is correct, his proposal would increase the number of recipients by 40 percent.
In Hillsborough County, there are 10,278 students who failed the reading FCAT three years in a row, said Jim Hamilton, the school district's chief of staff. Of those, a little more than half are disabled.
Hamilton said he doesn't see anything wrong with providing vouchers to students who are struggling in public schools.
"Our intention as educators is to see kids succeed," he said.
But Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, said he fears the vouchers will become a backhanded way to remove problem students.
"All of a sudden, voila!" Miller said. "Our public schools will be doing great. And then the governor can say, "Look at what I've done for education.' "
Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.REPEAT FAILURES
More than 170,000 Florida students have failed FCAT reading three years in a row, which state officials think should make those students eligible for a private school voucher. Below are the 2001-2002 failure rates for sixth and eighth grades:
30: percentage of sixth-graders who scored at the lowest level on FCAT reading.
70: Percentage of those students who failed again the next year.
83: percentage who failed a third consecutive year.
29: percentage of eighth-graders who scored at the lowest level on FCAT reading.
87: percentage of those students who failed again the next year.
88: percentage who failed a third consecutive year.
Source: Department of Education