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State extends deadline for private school voucher registration

May 1 was to be the day private schools had to register by. But officials say legal issues complicated matters.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


Private schools reluctant to register to accept voucher students because of all the confusion over the legal challenge to the program now have another three weeks to think it over.

Monday was to have been the deadline for private schools to register with the state to participate in the state's Opportunity Scholarship program. But Monday, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher decided to extend the deadline to May 22.

"There's been some legal uncertainty about the program," said JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education. "We didn't want that to be a factor, so the commissioner is going to give them some more time."

To date, 80 private schools -- most of them Catholic and religious schools -- have registered to accept students from failing public schools. The number quadrupled in the past two weeks as the deadline approached.

The number of schools participating was boosted by efforts by a Tampa businessman who arranged to provide $2-million to help private schools expand or renovate to accept students from public schools. Tampa's John Kirtley worked with 35 private schools throughout the state. Many of those schools added their names to the state's list recently.

David Clark, spokesman for the FTP-NEA teachers union, said the extension of the deadline and the financial incentives are signs that the state has had trouble enlisting private schools.

But voucher proponents disagreed.

"I think the participation has been excellent," said Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians For School Choice. "They are concentrated not only in the districts, but in the neighborhoods where they might be needed."

Heffernan acknowledged that the legal challenge has caused some confusion among private schools who have wondered about the future of the Opportunity Scholarship program. With the deadline extension, Heffernan estimated the number of private schools participating might approach 100.

The legal uncertainties that have cast a shadow on the voucher program got a little clearer last week. The Leon County judge handling the case ruled that the program could continue while an appeal is pending. Judge Ralph Smith ruled in March that the program violated Florida's constitutiona by using public money to pay private-school tuition. When Gov. Jeb Bush and voucher proponents appealed the decision, the judge granted a stay, meaning that the program will remain in place until the the legal issue is resolved.

Last week, voucher opponents failed to persuade Judge Smith to lift the stay. So until the case is resolved, the program will move forward. That means that in June, when the new school grades are released, the state will learn how many public schools are eligible for vouchers.

Seventy-eight schools -- none in the Tampa Bay area -- could be eligible.

Clark questioned whether Gallagher even had the authority to change the deadline for private schools to register. The May 1 deadline was written into law. Only the Legislature can change the law.

But Carrin pointed out that the paragraph that refers to the deadline begins with the words "except for the first year of implementation." When the voucher law was passed last year, that phrase was necessary because by the time the voucher legislation was signed into law it already was too late for the deadlines to apply. Carrin pointed out that vouchers became law in June, so that first year has not yet passed.

"While technically the commissioner may be correct that we are still within the first year, it is clear that his action is a circumvention of the intent of the law," Clark said.

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