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Schools

Q&A: School voucher decision

Here are answers to some of your questions

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published January 6, 2006


How big a deal is this?

Financially, not so big. Gov. Jeb Bush puts the cost at about $3-million this year. Symbolically, however, it's very important because it was the big stick in the governor's A-Plus plan for schools to improve or risk losing students. It is a national model for school vouchers.

How many students use Opportunity Scholarships?

733 children in seven counties.

How many students are affected in the Tampa Bay area?

None. Children at one Hillsborough County charter school had been eligible, but the school district has closed that school.

What did the Florida Supreme Court decide on Thursday?

Specifically, the court ruled that the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program is unconstitutional, that it is wrongly using public tax money to support education in private schools.

What is the Opportunity Scholarship Program?

The program allowed students in failing schools - those graded F by the state twice in a four-year span - to choose a higher performing public school or a participating private school.

What happens to the students who currently use these scholarships?

They will be allowed to finish the year at their chosen schools. They will not get a voucher for the 2006-07 academic year, unless the Legislature revises the program.

Wasn't this a centerpiece of Gov. Bush's education program? What will happen now at schools deemed by the state to be failing?

Bush has been examining alternatives to maintain vouchers without directly using public money. The state also will be able to use the escalating federal measures of No Child Left Behind, which include student transfers and complete school overhauls, to penalize failing schools.

How does this affect Gov. Bush's education programs?

It depends on whom you ask. The governor and his supporters consider it a setback in their efforts, but one that can be overcome. Detractors call the decision a major blow against the drive to privatize public education.

Who started all this?

A group of parents from Escambia County - the first in Florida to be eligible for vouchers - sued to try to stop the program in 1999. The name appearing on the case is that of veteran teacher Ruth Holmes (now Cameron). She has said she doesn't oppose private schools but she couldn't abide the state taking money from public schools to give vouchers to a few children.

Who are some of the other voucher supporters and opponents?

Voucher backers include some low-income families and minority groups seeking better education options, allied with conservative religious groups and Republicans seeking to alter the public education system. Ninety-five percent of students with Opportunity Scholarships in 2004-05 were black or Hispanic.

Opponents include groups that fear vouchers would undermine public education, including the National Education Association and the NAACP, more liberal religious and social organizations that don't like giving public money to private schools, including the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League, and most Democratic lawmakers.

Does this affect other voucher programs?

Not directly, although the case may set a precedent for future court cases.

How many students participate in those?

The McKay Scholarship program, which allows students with learning disabilities to choose schools that best serve them, has 16,144 participants. Locally, that includes 47 students in Citrus County, 44 in Hernando, 846 in Hillsborough, 237 in Pasco and 892 in Pinellas.

The Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, for children from families with limited finances, has 13,497 participants. Locally, that includes 96 in Citrus, 34 in Hernando, 701 in Hillsborough, 131 in Pasco and 422 in Pinellas.

Does this affect universal pre-kindergarten?

No. The court ruled that the same constitutional restrictions it applied to K-12 schooling do not affect pre-K.

What happened to the argument that public money could not be spent on religious institutions?

The court sidestepped, deeming it "unnecessary" to decide whether Opportunity Scholarships violated the Florida Constitution's religious freedoms provision because they violated the "free public schools" clause.

Is the legal battle over now that the Florida Supreme Court has spoken?

Probably. The case dealt solely with Florida-specific law, so there are no outstanding federal claims.

What else might happen?

Lawmakers can rewrite the program to avoid the problems outlined by the court. They also could ask voters to amend the Florida Constitution to allow the program to continue.

[Last modified January 6, 2006, 08:00:05]


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