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Panel visits, hears thoughts on school choice

A congressional subcommittee takes testimony in Temple Terrace to gauge opinions on vouchers and charter schools.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


TEMPLE TERRACE -- After visiting Cleveland, Milwaukee and other hotbeds of school choice, members of a congressional committee took testimony Monday from the people at the center of Florida's school choice controversies.

During a hearing at a charter school in Temple Terrace, members of Congress heard from a Pensacola woman who uses a voucher to send her daughter to private school. They heard from the Escambia County superintendent, who warned against the abandonment of the public schools. And they heard Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher defend the nation's only statewide school voucher program, recently struck down by a judge.

"You've got a lot going on here in Florida," said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who chaired the hearing of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, part of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. "We wanted to hear about it, from the tactical stuff ... to the broad philosophical stuff."

Though the federal government contributes only about 7 percent of the costs of public school education, Congress uses grants and other incentives to promote certain education programs. For instance, Congress is planning to dole out $130-million in charter school grants this year -- not a large amount, but incentive enough to get more charter schools up and running.

Charter schools might have been the one innovation on which everyone at the hearing Monday agreed.

"Freedom from regulation, bureaucratic rules and procedures, and the status quo have allowed schools like ours to flourish," said David S. Lourie, head of the Terrace Community School, a back-to-basics charter school where students study things such as Latin and Spanish. Lourie, whose school operates out of a Temple Terrace storefront, talked about the investment that parents have in the school.

U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., whose children attend a charter school in his home district, spoke fervently in favor of charter schools and school choice in general, which he said was the key to what "really engages parents."

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, appeared to be the only member of Congress at the hearing who opposed school vouchers, and he made his opposition known early. Davis supports charter schools, but not vouchers. Charter schools are public schools, and their doors are open to all children.

"I think it's fair to say today that the voucher plan failed in Florida," Davis said, referring to a judge's recent ruling that Florida's voucher plan is unconstitutional. The ruling is being appealed.

Tracy Richardson, a single mother from Pensacola, gave the congressmen her view of the voucher program, which has enabled her to send her 9-year-old daughter to a private school.

"I feel like I won the lottery when my daughter was chosen," Richardson said. She said her daughter "used to be a hostage of the public school system."

Richardson's daughter did not attend one of the two schools that received the state's lowest grade two years in a row, which qualified the students for vouchers. Her daughter, Khaliah, attended another Pensacola school (which also got an F grade this year) but was allowed a voucher because she was zoned for one of the voucher schools.

After more than two hours of testimony, Sarasota schools Superintendent David Bennett pointed out that students who benefit from charter schools and vouchers account for less than 1 percent of the nation's schoolchildren. He urged lawmakers to "keep your eye on the other 99 percent."

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