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    A Times Editorial

    Portable vouchers

    The latest scheme has Tallahassee writing voucher checks to deal with overcrowding in public schools. Coming in a year of new tax cut proposals, it smacks of hypocrisy.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


    Florida has been so cheap with public education that one in five students goes to school in a portable classroom. But the solution, which is to build more schools, is a bit too obvious for some of the state's government leaders. Instead, House Speaker Tom Feeney wants to hand out private school vouchers.

    Don't try to follow the logic in this approach. None is intended. This is a simple and undisguised attempt to hand out public subsidies to middle- and upper-class families who want to send their children to private schools. And we can at least credit Feeney with political consistency. He is the same lawmaker who has spent a career trying to persuade colleagues to give vouchers to every student. He once described his education philosophy this way: "The basic problem with our public school system is that it's a public monopoly.. . . Our public school system looks just like the Soviet economic model."

    Feeney is now in a position to do war with those Soviets, but, more curiously, some other generals have joined the battle. Newly elected Education Commissioner Charlie Crist calls the portable vouchers "a wonderful idea." And Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said previously that vouchers should be used only as a tool to spur schools to do a better job of teaching students, is now sending a gubernatorial wink to his former running mate Feeney.

    Do they really expect the public to buy this?

    The House bill, filed by Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, calls on the state to identify schools that are filled beyond 120 percent of their stated capacity. Students at those schools then could request a $3,000-a-year voucher to attend any private or religious school of their choice for up to 13 years. The bill also gives them the option of requesting a less-crowded public school, which is a choice most school districts already give them.

    The plan raises some obvious questions. If the aim is to eliminate portable classrooms and minimize public expense, why not simply force students at overcrowded schools to enroll in public schools with spare capacity? In rapidly growing counties where there are no schools with spare capacity, is it really likely that private schools will have much available space? Will shuffling students to private schools give them a better education?

    The problem here is one of growth planning and financial commitment. School districts are often caught off guard by local governments that grant new development permits for housing in areas where no schools exist, and the state has done little under its growth management laws to force the issue. At the same time, school construction can be time-consuming and costly, and the state has been too busy handing out tax breaks during a robust economy to make sure that school districts have enough money to get the job done.

    But it would be a mistake to take this voucher plan at face value. House Republicans, who are behind the effort, were also involved in a 1997 attempt to embrace portable classrooms. "Education is going on in the portables," said Rep. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, at the time. "We'd like to count them at 100 percent."

    Those same portables now serve as a pretext for more vouchers, and the likely beneficiaries are obvious. Many of the state's most overcrowded schools are located in the bustling suburbs, where new homes are attracting upper-middle-income and mostly white families. In Pinellas County, for example, Palm Harbor University High School, the district's newest high school, has nearly 30 portables and a waiting list of anxious students. Does that mean families in that community can now get government checks should they decide to take a private alternative?

    Let's not pretend this is about better education. The vouchers in this latest scheme are not proffered as an incentive for schools to produce results, but as a substitute for state support of public schools. And what makes the duplicity even more insulting is that it comes from the same Legislature that has handed out $1.5-billion in tax breaks over the past two years.

    This year, Bush is offering up $313-million worth of new tax cuts, and Feeney is shooting for $450-million. Yet they say we can't afford classrooms for schoolchildren and must hand out voucher checks. Most learned people would call this hypocrisy.

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