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Florida bill would expand school vouchers program

TALLAHASSEE — A school vouchers program created by former Gov. Jeb Bush is set to grow under a bill making its way through the state Legislature.

Thousands of previously ineligible students would be able to move from struggling public schools to higher-performing ones in any school district — even if they don't live there — as long as the district has available space. The students would be allowed to stay in their adopted districts until they graduated.

And if a student in any grade was assigned to a school with a troubled record, he or she could choose a different school to attend — an option only available now to students entering kindergarten or first grade.

The measure would not give students public dollars to attend private or parochial schools. The Florida Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional that portion of Bush's original and controversial voucher plan in 2006.

But the bill, which moved through committees in both legislative chambers this week with party-line votes, would expand the public-school provisions of the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

At the heart of proposed expansion is the definition of a failing school.

Existing law says a student can leave a school that receives two "F" grades in a four-year period. The state Department of Education issues the grades annually based largely on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

That definition would change with the Senate version of the new bill: Students could opt to leave any school receiving a "D" or "F" and a low rating on a separate state system that provides extra funding and support for schools that need additional help.

"Every child deserves a great education, and students in failed schools deserve better," said state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Wellington Republican and the bill's sponsor. Her counterpart in the House is state Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican. The legislation cleared committees in both chambers this week with votes along party lines.

Two hundred schools across the state would fall under the new definition, compared with 24 now. Nearly 110,000 students would become eligible to switch schools, up from around 17,000 now — a six-fold increase.

Benacquisto said the figures are misleading because about 150 of the 200 schools already offer vouchers under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Still, the numbers scare schools officials whose districts would be on the hook for providing transportation for students, even if they choose to attend a school far away from home but still in the same district.

"Nobody wants to deny a kid going to a good school, but you don't want the cost to be prohibitive," Michael O'Farrell, a lobbyist for the Duval school district, told a Senate education committee Wednesday.

The Legislature already underfunds school transportation, district officials argue. Indeed, the same education committee on Wednesday considered a bill to allow advertising on school buses to defray some of the cost of busing kids to school.

Districts would not have to transport students who use a voucher to attend a school in another county — say, if a Pinellas student chose a new school in Hillsborough.

The bill also poses a question of timing: School grades don't usually come out until the summer — or the fall, for high schools. A scramble to switch schools after grades come out could make it difficult for schools to plan how many teachers and classes they need for a given school year.

And if students leave underperforming schools in droves, those schools could have less money to improve.

"Let's not forget about the other 95 percent of those students who are in that school," state Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat, said when the bill was heard in a House panel Tuesday.

But the bill's supporters — a list that includes Gov. Rick Scott, the education department and Bush's education foundation — say few students choose to leave their schools. Fewer than 1,500 students are participating this year in the voucher plan, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

They also argue that other measures are in place to help turn around chronically ailing schools. In the meantime, students should have the option to get a solid education without having to turn to the private sector, they say.

"One of the main goals is to keep children in public school," Benacquisto said.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Florida bill would expand school vouchers program 03/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 10:19pm]
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