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Voucher fight to raise funds and tempers

Supporters say outrage over a judge's ruling will spark donations to pay the tuition of the Pensacola students.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


Five years ago, when a judge's ruling threw the Milwaukee school voucher program into disarray, Dan McKinley and some friends got on the telephone and started some serious fundraising.

"We believed there was enough popular support to keep those kids in (private, religious) schools. And we were right," said McKinley, president of the Milwaukee group, Partners Advancing Values in Education.

They raised $1.8-million in 10 days, and millions more during the next three years.

"For us," he said, "the judge's injunction crystalized it and personalized it in people's minds."

In Florida, where a circuit court judge Tuesday declared the statewide voucher program to be unconstitutional, voucher advocates hope to see the same sense of outrage, urgency and generosity in the Sunshine State.

The day after the judge tossed out Gov. Jeb Bush's ambitious opportunity scholarship plan, voucher proponents were planning a fundraising campaign to make good on Bush's pledge: to ensure that 52 children in Pensacola can remain in private schools even after the state stops spending money for their tuition.

The effort likely will not be limited to the Pensacola children.

The idea is to launch a campaign to use private money to help pay tuition to get students out of F-rated public schools and into private schools of their choice. The strategy is to capitalize on what they think is a widespread sense of outrage over the ruling.

Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. essentially said the Pensacola children may remain in private schools for the remainder of the school year, but public dollars would not pay their tuition after this year.

"I'm willing to contribute, absolutely," said Tampa businessman John Kirtley, who has pledged $1.5-million for privately funded scholarships for low-income Tampa Bay area children. Kirtley said he would be willing to pay the tuition for the Pensacola children. But he thinks the effort will be much larger.

"I can tell you there are many people who feel the same sense of outrage, who will be willing to contribute," he said.

Despite the setback in court, Kirtley and other voucher advocates sounded confident that the courts eventually would find the nation's only statewide voucher plan to be constitutionally sound.

Voucher advocates expect to win on appeal.

Wednesday morning, Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice, was busy in Broward County lining up private schools interested in taking children with vouchers next year. Today he will be in Dade County, talking with another group of 20 or so private schools

"It was business as usual for us," said Heffernan. Of course, the day was not entirely business as usual, because the pro-voucher effort includes fundraising to ensure that the Pensacola children do not have to leave private schools.

"People are deeply offended by this," he said. "They see this as one of the most mean-spirited things you can do to those kids."

To cover the annual tuition costs for the 52 Pensacola children, the bill might be about $150,000. But if the goal was to offer to pay tuition for all children at schools that earn the state's F-rating for two years, a lot more money would be needed.

Seventy-eight schools have F ratings. If all of them earned another F this school year, and if every one of the estimated 60,000 students in those schools opted to attend a private school, the cost might climb to $198-million. But that is an unlikely scenario.

In Pensacola, less than 10 percent of the eligible children chose to use a school voucher. History suggests more than half the F schools might earn a higher grade next time, so the cost is more likely to be in the $5-million to $10-million range.

"It's not inconceivable (that could be raised)" said Justin Sayfie, spokesman for Bush "There's a lot of interest in this issue statewide and nationally."

Although there is no legal reason why that plan would not work -- so long as public dollars are not sent to pay private tuition -- voucher opponents decried Bush's enthusiasm for raising money for private schools.

"We would hope (Bush) would rededicate his efforts to help all schools," said Senate Minority Leader Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando.

The judge relied on a voter-approved constitutional revision that requires Florida to provide "a system of free public schools."

Republican lawmakers could propose another constitutional change to counter Smith's ruling. They could draft an amendment, for example, that says private schools that receive vouchers fit into that public "system."

Putting an amendment on the ballot requires a three-fifths vote of the House and Senate, plus Supreme Court approval.

The fundraising campaign is likely to include the kind of rhetoric seen in political races.

Educators in Pensacola said Wednesday that they hope Bush ceases some of his rhetoric in which he laments that the opportunity scholarships are needed to rescue "children trapped in chronically failing public schools."

"The governor needs to know, nobody in that school was trapped," said Escambia County schools spokeswoman Barbara Frye.

She said that before the voucher plan, Escambia had a school choice plan in place that allowed parents assigned to the Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy -- one of the state's two schools that qualify for vouchers -- to leave for another public school. Under that plan last school year, 70 children transferred out and 50 transferred in.

-- Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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