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Board presses voucher issue

Published May 17, 2006

TAMPA - School vouchers didn't make it to the 2006 ballot, but that won't stop the state Board of Education from pressing the issue.

The seven-member board, all appointees of Gov. Jeb Bush's, told state Education Commissioner John Winn on Tuesday to come up with strategies to protect Florida's remaining voucher programs from legal attack.

"Although the Senate defeated the constitutional amendment opportunity ... it's my opinion that we should not stop there," said board member Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer, during a board meeting in Tampa.

The Republican-dominated Senate could not muster enough votes during the legislative session to place a voucher referendum before voters in November - one of Bush's major goals.

Lawmakers instead wrote a law allowing the 733 children who received Opportunity Scholarships, which the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in January, to use corporate scholarships instead.

"We should have a long-term plan to have choice protected in the Constitution," Martinez said, suggesting the court rulings on Opportunity Scholarships leave corporate vouchers, McKay Scholarships and voluntary prekindergarten vulnerable to challenge.

Combined, those programs far exceed the 733 vouchers given to students at chronically failing schools. Prekindergarten serves more than 80,000 children, while the other two programs support about 16,000 students each.

Other board members vigorously supported the goal.

"It makes the whole system better," said Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa executive and Bush's former chief of staff. "By having choice, the institution of public education is improved."

So, too, did Winn, another Bush appointee. He pledged to put together some "tactical moves" and to meet with key lawmakers to assess the possibilities in the next legislative session.

"I do believe your feelings are shared by legislative leadership," Winn said. "Absolutely, we should not go backward from here."

During a break, Martinez said he thinks the voters of Florida should have a full-blown debate on the matter and decide for themselves whether they support vouchers.

The prekindergarten program could be ripe for attack, he said, because the constitutional amendment creating pre-K did not specify the use of public money for private education, although the amendment sponsors say that was always the intent.

Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, who did not attend the meeting, said he welcomed the board's initiative. Perhaps it might provide the impetus that others have found elusive, he said.

But he predicted the departure of Bush, whom Webster called a voucher "champion," will hurt the drive.

"It was a tough sell this year, and it's not like we didn't give it all we have," said Webster, who sponsored the voucher amendment bill.

In other business, the state board set three restructuring choices for schools that receive a second consecutive F from the state when school grades are announced in late May or early June.

If these schools do not improve, they must contract their management to a private firm and give parents choice options with transportation to higher-performing public schools; revamp the school with new programs, a new staff and parental choice; or adopt a new program, offer parental choice and hire a new staff.

The state has a handful of schools, including Just Elementary in Tampa and Bayside High alternative school in Clearwater, on its watch list.

Even if the schools improve from an F to a D, board members said, they must continue with improvement plans until they achieve a C or better. And they made clear that the state will clamp down on schools that do nothing to improve.

"I've been down this road before. It always has been clear what our expectations are," said vice chairman T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami. "We've got to be very clear about what's going to happen if you don't do what you say you're going to do."

Winn said he would provide a specific set of penalties at the board's June meeting.

The board also rescinded a policy that would have banned the use of team teaching for purposes of solving the state's class size requirements, and adopted a new rule to implement a performance pay plan for teachers.

Each item was mandated by the Legislature this spring, countering programs that the state board had put forth in the past several months.

Chairman Phil Handy refused to look at these actions as defeats. At least the board took the lead in policy debates, he said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or

[Last modified May 17, 2006, 06:58:17]

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