House okays new vouchers, limited class size mandate

A skeptical Senate awaits. Voters would also have to approve part of Bush's education plan.

Published May 3, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida House approved Gov. Jeb Bush's broad education package Monday, which includes asking voters to scale back the class size amendment and a major expansion of the school voucher program.

Now the legislation will be sent to the Senate, where its chances of passage are unclear. Several senators have expressed strong reservations about the expansive package.

The plan, unveiled in February, is broken into two bills. The first is the A-Plus-Plus plan, the followup to Bush's 1999 program that raised the stakes connected to standardized testing. The second bill would lessen requirements for class size reduction and boost the minimum starting teacher pay to $35,000 if voters approve.

One of the most controversial elements of A-Plus-Plus is the "Reading Compact Scholarship," which would give a taxpayer-funded voucher to any child who fails the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test two out of three years.

Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, the sponsor of the bill, said about 250,000 children would qualify for the voucher but only a fraction are expected to use it.

Democrats attacked the voucher program as a means of diverting money from the state's public schools.

"What we say when we pass something like this is we wash our hands of our underperforming children," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "We try to send them somewhere else rather than ask, "Why aren't our schools performing?"'

Also drawing criticism was a provision dictating how U.S. history can be taught. The proposal requires history "be taught as genuine history and not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth."

Opponents wondered who would judge between genuine and revisionist history.

"It leaves too much open," said Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, the House minority leader. "That's why we opposed it."

But after more than an hour of debate, the plan passed 80-34.

Bush's proposal to scale back the constitutional amendment to reduce class size had a steeper hurdle. To be placed on the ballot, it needed approval from three-fifths of the House, or 72 members. It squeaked by with a vote of 76 to 34.

The plan would ask voters to freeze class size standards at the districtwide level. Bush has long been opposed to the class size amendment, which he said is too expensive.

Under Bush's plan, the money saved by not imposing stricter class size requirements would pay for an increase in starting teacher pay and give every teacher a $2,000 raise.

Gelber said it was an unfair choice.

"If you look in the dictionary under "devious plan,' it's pitting overcrowded classrooms against underpaid teachers," he said.

--Carrie Johnson can be reached at 850 224-7263 or cjohnson@sptimes.com