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Senate reverses, keeps hopes for vouchers alive

The state Senate preserves the possibility of school vouchers with a bill sponsored by the new majority leader.

By JONI JAMES and LETITIA STEIN
Published May 3, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - In a startling move less than 24 hours after handing Gov. Jeb Bush an embarrassing defeat, the Florida Senate voted late Tuesday to revisit asking voters to allow private school vouchers.

The procedural move, which shocked and angered members of the Democratic minority, does nothing to change the fact that Senate Republicans on Monday failed to find the 24 votes needed to place the measure on the November ballot. No vote was taken on the proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday night.

But the maneuver - orchestrated by Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, and carried out over objections of even some Republicans - keeps the issue alive until the 2006 Legislature adjourns Friday.

"I have no plan or expectation of bringing this issue up," Lee told reporters later. "It felt good for the Senate to have it available."

The bill sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said he didn't think the votes could be found. "I know how hard I worked, I don't think it's there," he said. "But this provides a ray of hope."

Democrats said Lee was bending Senate rules. "We're not in a country like Iraq or Iran, and that's what the Senate president is making us," said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Until the Senate's move late Tuesday, Republican leaders appeared focused on following a more modest plan for salvaging the Bush voucher program that has been struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.

The court said the program failed because it diverted funds from public education in violation of the state Constitution. The plan, therefore, was to address the way money flows to the vouchers through state law, which requires a majority of 21 votes, rather than through an amendment to the Constitution.

By Tuesday morning, even Bush appeared to expect just a law change. The voucher program, known as Opportunity Scholarships, uses public money to send students from failing public schools to private or religious schools. The smallest of Florida's three voucher programs, it has 733 students who stand to lose vouchers at the end of the school year.

The Senate's legislative plan would make the program more like another voucher program that provides income tax credits to businesses who donate money for vouchers. Under the plan, a segregated state account would be set up to collect the donated income taxes. "We're telling the court that this money is separate," Webster said.

Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, didn't see it that way. "It's a sham, and it's a bad idea," Klein said.

Under the Senate proposal, when students take vouchers to private schools, the failing public schools wouldn't lose state money. Nor could students keep vouchers indefinitely. A student from a failing elementary school would lose the voucher when entering a middle school, so long as that's not failing.

The limits make the plan attractive to a number of the senators who opposed the broad constitutional amendment backed by Bush.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Alex Leary and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 3, 2006, 01:34:09]


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