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Bill adds crowding to voucher criteria

The House measure would give $3,000 to students so they could get out of schools at 120 percent of capacity.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001


The House measure would give $3,000 to students so they could get out of schools at 120 percent of capacity.

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would provide taxpayer-financed private school tuition vouchers to students in crowded public schools.

The bill was the second of two voucher proposals to reach the House floor this session. The House already has approved a measure to give income tax credits to corporations that donate money to help poor children attend private schools and public schools outside their home districts. The tax credit measure has more support in the Senate and a better chance of becoming law.

Despite its uncertain fate, the crowded-voucher bill sparked debate on the House floor and applause from the public viewing galleries.

"It is the right thing to do," said state Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, a co-sponsor of the bill. "Our children should not be condemned to overcrowded classrooms and they don't have to be."

Under the bill, 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. Private schools that accept the crowded-school vouchers would be subject to fewer rules than schools that now accept vouchers from students in failing public schools.

For example, private schools wouldn't have to accept the $3,000 as the full tuition payment, which opponents say would benefit only wealthier parents who could afford to pay the balance. Also, private schools wouldn't have to open their doors to all applicants.

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 definition of crowded. In Pasco, 10 schools could be eligible, and in Pinellas, it's 12 schools. Those numbers could change as more schools are built and populations shift.

The bill 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. In defense of the school districts, Democrats on Wednesday said all but $282-million of those funds had been spent or pledged for ongoing projects.

"We are going to build those schools. We are going to use those tax dollars," said state Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach.

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 public schools. Opponents say public schools won't save money because the loss of a few students here and there won't be enough to warrant hiring fewer teachers or buying fewer supplies.

The bill is expected to receive final approval on today in the House, where Republicans who favor the measure hold a 77-43 majority. A similar measure has yet to be heard in the Senate.

-- Times staff writer Steve Hegarty contributed to this report.

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Florida Legislature Session 2001

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