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Senate limits voucher expansion plan

Senators didn't agree with the governor's proposed constitutional amendment to start programs for any child.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published April 5, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Senate on Tuesday reined in Gov. Jeb Bush's sweeping plan to expand the state's school voucher programs to any child in Florida.

A Senate panel narrowed the proposed constitutional amendment so it would apply only to the state's existing voucher programs. They include private-school vouchers for students with disabilities, children from poor families, 4-year-olds in prekindergarten and some college scholarships.

The Bush plan was much broader. Under the governor's approach, "You could start voucher programs for any child," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "I just don't think I can pass that out of the Senate."

The move reflects a looming battle in the Senate over the taxpayer-funded vouchers, the cornerstone of Bush's education agenda. Three months ago, the state Supreme Court threw out a program that used state dollars to send students in failing public schools to private schools.

The decision directly affected only 733 students in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. But it cast a long shadow over tens of thousands of Florida students in other state programs that channel funds into private and religious schools.

In his last legislative session as governor, Bush has asked lawmakers to ensure the future of the programs. Several ideas are being debated to get around the court's ruling:

--A constitutional amendment asking voters to guarantee that vouchers continue.

--Changing the law to address the constitutional concerns with the overturned program.

--Accountability for how voucher dollars are spent. This doesn't address constitutional questions, but may be necessary to get the votes to put vouchers on the ballot in November.

Bush initially proposed guaranteeing vouchers in prekindergarten through college to all students who have disabilities, are economically disadvantaged or "whose parents request alternatives to traditional public education." But the Senate balked at the broad language.

Key GOP senators worry they lack the support to put vouchers on the ballot. A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote of both the House and Senate.

In the Senate, 24 legislators would have agreed. But eight of 26 Republican senators won't support a voucher amendment without a law to bolster accountability for how the programs operate, said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. He is sponsoring accountability legislation, which has passed the House.

"Even doing that, I'm not sure we can pass in the Senate," King said, referring to accountability legislation. "It doesn't take very many of them voting with the Democrats, who will probably uniformly vote no."

That political calculus is not certain because the vouchers issue crosses racial lines. Many recipients are children from minority families. One black Democrat, Sen. Larcenia Bullard of Miami, plans to support the effort to ask voters how they feel about voucher programs. Other Senate Democrats are expected to band together in opposition.

In another complication, attached to the vouchers amendment is a controversial proposal requiring school districts to spend 65 percent of operating funds inside the classroom. The so-called 65 percent solution already is raising concerns among several Republican senators.

"I do have concerns if the 65 percent provision is in a constitutional amendment because that goes against my principle of local government authority," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who generally supports vouchers.

The broad amendment proposed by Bush passed its first House committee Tuesday, with the 65 percent concept included in it. But the House is willing to work with the Senate on narrowing language, said Rep. John Stargel, R-Lakeland, chairman of the committee airing the debate.

Some lawmakers think pieces of the issue could be addressed by simply changing state law.

Webster, a leader on voucher issues in the Senate, prefers this fix. He has rolled out a detailed plan creating a program to fund vouchers for students in failing schools.

To Webster, a constitutional amendment isn't just a hard sell in the Legislature. It might not get voter supporter, either. A recent St. Petersburg Times poll found that a majority of Florida residents don't like using state dollars to fund private schools for students in failing schools.

"It's kind of like all or nothing," Webster said. "When the voters vote, the idea of vouchers will either be protected, or they won't be talked about for 10 years."

--Letitia Stein can be reached at 850 224-7263 or lstein@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 5, 2006, 00:37:15]


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