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    Lawmakers debate 2 new voucher bills

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


    Although the court fight over Florida's original school vouchers law is unresolved, state lawmakers are battling over two new proposals that could put thousands more public school children in private schools.

    As different as the two proposals are, they both touch on themes that resonate with conservative lawmakers. One would address one of the most common complaints among educators (overcrowding) using the least palatable solution to educators (vouchers). The other involves corporate tax credits and vouchers.

    Both plans could have a big impact on public schools in the Tampa Bay area because they target the kinds of children the area has in abundance: those in crowded schools and those who are poor. "We don't know yet how it's going to affect us, but of course I'm concerned about it," Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley said. "Originally, it was all about accountability. But now we have all these other voucher plans."

    The bill offering vouchers to children in overcrowded schools is getting much of the attention. But it's the other bill -- offering tax credits to corporations contributing to a fund that gives grants to poor children -- that shows greater promise of becoming law.

    "The overcrowding bill? I don't know about that one," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, who is supporting the tax credit bill. "The one hasn't been welcomed with open arms over here (in the Senate). But the other bill, I think, looks like a winner."

    At this point, both bills are alive and well. If either or both pass, they will open the doors to thousands of children locally to take a voucher to an area private school. They also would ensure Florida's place on the cutting edge of school choice nationally, as well as a place on court dockets, because they are almost certain to face legal challenges.

    Tax credits

    If there is a court challenge on this bill, it won't turn on the question of using tax dollars in private schools. The program is designed to skirt that issue altogether. Money that might have gone to taxes instead goes to private school tuition for poor children.

    "The money never actually gets into the government's hands," said John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman and voucher proponent who is actively promoting the tax-credit plan. "This encourages corporations to help lower-income parents."

    A version of the bill has passed the House, and last week, it cleared its first hurdle in the Senate.

    The idea is to give a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit to corporations that donate money to help poor children attend private schools and public schools outside their home districts. Donations could not exceed $4,000 per student for private schools and $500 for out-of-district public schools.

    How many children could be eligible? In Pinellas County, some 40,000 children are eligible for the federal lunch program, the standard used to define poor children. In Hillsborough, there are 85,000 such children.

    Opponents say it will cut into donations to education foundations. But proponents disagree.

    "This was largely initiated by institutions that said they would be willing to make some contributions," Sen. Sullivan said.

    "The thing I like about it is it provides more student funding for those kids who remain in public schools. The fiscal impact is a positive."

    The reasoning is that the $4,000 voucher is less than what is spent on the average child in public school, so the difference of about $1,000 is a savings.

    Opponents say that's wishful thinking.

    "I'm sorry, but I remain unconvinced that there are going to be any cost savings," said Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa.

    He said schools that lose a handful of students to such vouchers will have the same personnel costs but will get less funding because of the loss of students.

    Overcrowding

    Robert Bentz knows why his son's school, Palm Harbor University High School, is crowded. True, the area is growing. But the school also has a great reputation.

    "People want to go to school there," said Bentz, chairman of the school's advisory committee. "It's because of the reputation, the community involvement, the atmosphere. They want to be there."

    The bill to give vouchers to students at crowded schools could affect a school like Palm Harbor. But many question whether there will be lots of families clamoring to take vouchers.

    "Some of those schools are crowded because so many parents want their children there," said Earl Lennard, superintendent of Hillsborough County schools. "How many parents do you think are going to line up to leave Plant High School or Gorrie Elementary?"

    Those are two popular Tampa schools that could be eligible for the voucher, based on recent head counts. Students at any school where enrollment exceeds 120 percent of capacity would qualify for a $3,000 "grant" to help pay tuition at a private school.

    In Citrus and Hernando counties, no schools are expected to be eligible for the crowded school vouchers, based on current enrollment. In Hillsborough, 18 schools meet the state definition of crowded. In Pasco, 10 schools could be eligible, and in Pinellas, 12 schools. Those numbers could change as more schools are built and populations shift.

    The bill addressing overcrowding grew out of lawmakers' frustration that the state's school construction problems weren't solved by a 1997 special session that provided $2.7-billion to build schools.

    Again, supporters say the plan would help public schools by siphoning off some children from crowded campuses. The $3,000 voucher is less than the average amount spent on most schoolchildren in public schools. Supporters say that would result in a fiscal gain for the public schools.

    And again, opponents say that doesn't add up.

    "Sure, it might help to have a few students leave an overcrowded school," said Pasco School Superintendent John Long. "But if a few leave, you don't reduce costs by a nickel. If three kids leave a school, we don't need fewer teachers."

    The new voucher proposals might draw more interest from private schools, many of which declined to participate in the state's original voucher law for students from chronically failing schools.

    "This is a lot less cumbersome than the other program," said Skardon Bliss, executive secretary of the Florida Council of Independent Schools.

    For one thing, private schools would not have to accept the $3,000 voucher as the entire tuition payment. Parents could make up the difference. Also, the program does not require that private schools open their doors to all applicants with vouchers.

    The plan passed in the House committees, but has yet to face a vote in the Senate.

    - Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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