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    Letters to the Editors

    Expansion of voucher program causes concern

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001

    Re: Florida voucher program surges, Sept. 5.

    I have been concerned ever since these special education vouchers were rather quietly put in place during the final week of the 2000 legislative session.

    Originally, parents had to show evidence that their child had not "kept pace" for two years in a row in order to receive a voucher, and the number of vouchers was held to 5 percent of the special education population. This year, however, parents simply have to say they are dissatisfied with the services their children are receiving in the public schools.

    Your article states: "Beyond an initial approval process that makes the private school eligible to accept state checks, the state conducts no further oversight of the school." Considering this, I have some real concerns about how these vouchers will affect the students and the school system. Some of these are:

    1. Will private schools be held to the same guidelines as public schools in educating special education students? For example, will teachers be certified in the child's exceptionality?

    2. Will private schools be prepared to meet all federal guidelines regarding special education students? For example, will they be required to write individual education plans for students?

    3. At least some supporters of these vouchers are of the opinion that the vouchers will have no financial impact on public schools because the schools will no longer be responsible for educating children who will be in private schools. I can think of at least two things that could make this a false premise.

    First, students "can jump to a private school or return to a public school at virtually any time during the school year." Since special education units are allocated at very specific times during the school year, a student could return to the public schools after units have been allocated and be served even though he wasn't counted in the unit allocation.

    Second, in order for a student to be considered for one of these vouchers, he must first be identified as needing special services. The process of identifying these students is a time-consuming one that takes many hours of staff time. All of the time used in this process translates into taxpayers' money being spent on an evaluation to identify a student who may very well end up going to a private school.

    4. Lastly, your article states that there have already been several schools established to serve these children specifically with the vouchers in mind. I fear that many more of these will crop up with money, not the needs of the child, as their primary objective.

    The special educators I have worked with go far beyond what is required of them to try to help each and every child. This is not an easy task, considering the ever-increasing paperwork and other requirements that are heaped upon us. So why are the proponents of these vouchers more willing to hand over taxpayer money to private schools than to fight to remove some of the public school requirements that are eating away at precious time and energy that could be better spent on things that directly impact our students' progress?
    -- Lois Robertson, Odessa

    A pawn in the game

    Re: Florida voucher program surges, Sept. 5.

    There are important facts about the growing number of students with disabilities applying for vouchers that have been omitted from your reporting. Students who attend public school must pass a heavy course load including algebra and the FCAT to receive a high school diploma. If they do not meet these requirements they receive only a certificate of attendance.

    Many parents are choosing private schools because their children can get high school diplomas without meeting these same standards. Because of state guidelines, the only other option for public school students is the GED program.

    These parents are choosing self-esteem for their children the only way the state will allow it. The public schools are amazingly successful at providing services to students with disabilities. They should be celebrated by our Legislature. Instead they are latest pawn in the game plan of privatizing education.
    -- Barbara W. Teetor, Tyrone Elementary School, St. Petersburg

    Problems with program changes

    Re: Florida voucher program surges, Sept. 5.

    It boggles my mind that there has been such a jump in the number of vouchers that have been or will be distributed. We're going to start seeing it increase little by little as time goes on. I have a suggestion Gov. Jeb Bush: Stop this incremental garbage. Just give it all away!

    I have several problems with how the program has changed. It's kind of like changing the rules midway through the game. The fact that a disabled student can receive a voucher simply because the parents are dissatisfied with the school is ludicrous. Talk about opening Pandora's box! Not to mention that parents can go back and forth between the schools when and as often as they choose.

    Regarding the deadline, how can they change it, and by more than a month at that? If these "hundreds more parents" were that concerned about the services their children were receiving, they would have filled out the paperwork. This is just another reaffirmation that some of our legislators are more concerned about giving this money away than they are in fixing our existing schools.

    The story notes that Mary Hercher of the DePaul School for Dyslexia in Clearwater fears some of the private schools are accepting vouchers only because they're interested in making easy money, which could ruin a good program. Fear no more, Ms. Hercher. Jeb Bush and his cronies did that all by themselves!
    -- Anne Kluga, Safety Harbor

    Classroom overload

    School started about three weeks ago, and teachers at Palm Harbor Middle School were excited. After all, we are an "A" school with teachers who do their job and do it well.

    Bulletin boards had been made, walls were brightly decorated, every classroom looked cheerful. It was the perfect academic setting! Then came the kids . . . more and more kids! Some teachers found themselves with 42 children in a classroom. At the middle school level, there were a number of teachers who had a total class load of well over 170 students. Desks were rapidly filled, so chairs were brought in. It was inundation! Not all of these kids were what you'd call the average child, either. Along with the multitudes came the mainstreamed kids: autistic kids, kids with emotional problems, behavior problems, academic problems, perceptual problems, etc. What a shock to even the most experienced teacher -- to face something so impossible to deal with!

    Teach? That would be nice, but the numbers are so high, it's really no more than a babysitting job. Actually, no! A babysitter has only a few little charges to deal with. This is more like warehousing. This is utterly absurd! If our government thinks education is being properly funded, I think those Tallahassee politicians are a few fries short of a Happy Meal. I would dare anyone to try to produce a quality educational environment under these conditions. Thank God I am close to retirement; it's only getting worse!
    -- Melanie Woods, Palm Harbor Middle School, Palm Harbor

    Moment of silence goes too far

    Re: Moment of silence harms children? by James J. Kilpatrick, Sept. 7.

    James J. Kilpatrick's article uses all the same old tired arguments that we've been hearing for as long as I can remember. However, I'd like to call these moment of silence statutes what they really are: veiled attempts to reintroduce prayer into the public schools. It's that simple. It amazes me that some people still don't understand, clearly, that the Constitution says, "government shall make no law . . ." What part of "no" do these people not understand?

    Kilpatrick goes on to list a slew of laws enacted by Congress and the states respecting the establishment of religion and approved of by the Supreme Court as if they justify just one more chink in the mortar of the wall of separation. I believe that all laws made by Congress and the states, i.e. all the ones listed by Kilpatrick, are also violations of the establishment clause. Once again, "Government shall make no law . . ."

    Further, no child at any time in his/her school day is prohibited from praying silently to himself. Why then is it so important to have an organized minute when the students can do so? If it is so important to provide students with time to "collect themselves and put their upcoming tasks into meaningful perspective," maybe the school day should start at least a half an hour earlier. It seems like a tall order to be filled in minute.

    In addition, as a non-believer, I do believe that religion's influence over so many aspects of our society is harmful. I also believe that my child will be endangered by such group-think activities as a mandated moment of silence. I, therefore, think that if my child were in a public school, that the appropriate authorities should be protecting my child from this violation of his constitutional right to be religion free.

    Lastly, if the Virginia act "does not require children to pray or listen to prayer, . . . Only to shut up for 60 seconds," then it is still a violation of the establishment clause if my kid is forced to shut up while some other kid has a state sanctioned 60 seconds to pray if he'd like to!

    The government shall make no law, period.
    -- John O. Collins, St. Petersburg

    Avoid stigmatizing language

    I was disappointed in Elijah Gosier's stigmatizing language in Special Delivery, his Sept. 3 article. "On a recent morning, city buses and vagrants are the only thing keeping streets awake . . ."

    Gosier demeans St. Petersburg's most vulnerable citizens, homeless people, by casually labeling them as vagrants. I would think his editors would understand that using derogatory language to refer to a group -- with mental health and addiction challenges -- robs them of their humanity. When the press sees a group as less than human, as vagrants, it opens the group to societal abuse. Language is too powerful a tool for newspaper writers and editors to casually abuse.
    -- Steve Kersker, disability advocate, Florida Drop In Center Association Inc., St. Petersburg

    An insensitive practice

    Re: Parachutist dies after stadium plunge, Aug. 31.

    Once again you presume that the reaction of family members is so important to your readers that you must explain the absence of comment by indicating, "His family could not be reached for comment."

    The practice of seeking "comment" from family members immediately following a tragedy is extremely insensitive and unworthy. Please reconsider this policy.
    -- Richard J. Lewis, Madeira Beach

    The marginalizing of men

    Re: Feminists are mooching off men, Aug. 30.

    Maureen Dowd recently described the evolving dating ritual, whereby men are expected to pay for women. Our culture is gradually de-emphasizing the role of men in our communities and homes. Our court system laid the ground work for this subconscious transition. Single fathers have been perceived for decades as nothing more than ATM machines and sperm donors.

    Tragically, Dowd has affirmed this.
    -- Michael Osborne, Seminole

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