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Poll: Majority oppose vouchers

Only about a third of those asked favor Gov. Bush's program using public money to send kids to private schools.

By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published March 30, 2006


 

Florida started the first statewide, private-school voucher program in the nation. Gov. Jeb Bush says vouchers are as "American as apple pie." Supporters say vouchers have forced public schools to improve.

But the public still doesn't like them.

Seven years after Bush made vouchers a key plank in his education overhaul, a solid majority of Floridians do not think public money should be used to pay for private schooling, at least when it comes to students in failing public schools, a new poll by the St. Petersburg Times shows.

Sixty-one percent oppose such a program. Thirty-five percent approve.

"It doesn't seem fair to me that if I can't send my own children to private school that my tax dollars are being used to send other kids," said Theresa Holcomb, a Manatee County resident with a daughter in high school.

The poll comes two months after the Florida Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Scholarships, one of the state's three K-12 voucher programs, and in the middle of a legislative session in which supporters are working to shield the other two programs from future legal challenges.

A Bush spokesman declined to comment on the poll. But other voucher backers concede an uphill fight.

The poll results are "an accurate read," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the House Education Council. "There's no doubt we will have a challenge to get our message across."

The Times telephone poll of 872 Florida adults was conducted March 14-26 by RSVP Research Services of Tampa. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

The results jibe with some national polls, including one last year by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional educators group. In that poll, 57 percent opposed vouchers, up from 50 percent in 1998. Other national polls show the public more evenly split.

Bush made vouchers a priority soon after he was elected in 1998. The first program he backed, Opportunity Scholarships, offered vouchers to students in public schools that earned F grades from the state twice in four years. Supporters said vouchers would provide those students - now numbering about 700, and predominantly black and Hispanic - a lifeline while spurring improvement in public schools.

Opponents, led by the state teachers union, immediately filed suit. And seven years later, the Supreme Court sided with them.

A 5-2 majority ruled that Opportunity Scholarships violated constitutional requirements for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools" - a decision that legal scholars say jeopardizes the other two K-12 voucher programs, which cover some 30,000 students.

Voucher supporters have vowed to save them.

In the Legislature, they are pushing several constitutional fixes, including an amendment that would remove one of the Supreme Court's legal arguments in rejecting vouchers, and another that some observers say could allow the state to offer vouchers to every student. It remains unclear whether the Republican majority has the votes to get those ideas on the November ballot.

But that might be the easy part.

Residents who identify themselves politically as Democrats or Independents oppose vouchers more than 2-to-1, the Times poll found.

Vouchers "just mask over the issue by shifting public school money to private schools," said Paul Fraleigh, a Hillsborough County Democrat who voted for Bush in 2002.

Even Republicans are split.

"If kids are taking vouchers and leaving the schools, the teachers will be out of work," said voucher supporter Tim Burnett, a Volusia County Republican with three young children. "The schools will have no choice but to get their scores up."

But many other Republicans see vouchers through a different frame, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. Jewett lives in Seminole County, a heavily Republican and suburban area near Orlando, and even there, voucher opposition is strong.

Many rank-and-file Republicans are "happy with their schools ... and they worry about money being diverted," Jewett said.

Voucher supporters say those fears are based on widespread misinformation. Per-pupil spending in Florida is about $6,200 per year, while the average Opportunity Scholarship costs the state just $4,205.

But vouchers also face resistance from minority groups.

Hispanic residents were as likely as their white counterparts to oppose vouchers, the poll found. And black residents were even more opposed despite the fact that in the three voucher programs, blacks and Hispanics make up 47, 63 and 94 percent of recipients.

Black lawmakers in Florida - a majority of whom oppose vouchers - are to blame for the opposition of black residents, said Leon Tucker, who heads the Florida office for a national pro-voucher group, Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Vouchers are a "social justice issue" but many black lawmakers slam them because they're Democrats and "that's the party line," said Tucker, who is black.

"Black people, they trust the people they elect," he said. "If you tell us vouchers are bad, we're not going to like them."

John Kirtley, a Tampa resident and leading voucher supporter, said the poll results aren't surprising given the wording of the question and the perception that public schools are underfunded.

He pointed to another recent poll put together by a trio of think tanks that found a majority of Floridians think per-pupil spending is too low, but also underestimate how much is actually being spent.

As a result, people get "defensive" when vouchers are tied to funding issues, Kirtley said.

But, "I don't think the public is against giving poor or handicapped children opportunities," he said.

The Times poll did not ask respondents whether they supported vouchers aimed at students with disabilities or vouchers tied to corporate tax credits.

On a related poll question, 4 out of 5 say students who attend private schools on vouchers should be required to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the same test most public school students take.

A proposal before the Legislature would require voucher students to take a standardized test similar to the FCAT.

Lawmakers failed to pass that bill the past two years.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

[Last modified March 30, 2006, 02:36:15]


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