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Don't diminish the value and quality of our public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently sued Florida, alleging that the state has failed to meet its constitutionally mandated duty to ensure that all public school students receive a quality education.

In response to this lawsuit and with Florida ranking in the bottom third of the country in education funding, the leaders of the Florida House and Senate decided to exacerbate the problem. Instead of treating education as a priority and proposing new legislation increasing funding to our schools, leadership reacted as only they know how — by filing legislation that cuts funding to schools, increases the transfer of public funds to private schools, and increases the number of students in a classroom.

The first bill, known as the "Right Size Class Size," has been filed by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Even those who fully support the class size amendment passed by Florida voters acknowledge that strict interpretation of the amendment can create difficulties for school districts.

I agree that districts need flexibility in implementing the class size amendment. And while I firmly believe that voters knew exactly what they were doing when they approved this amendment, I don't believe anyone wants to create a situation where one late enrolled student would require the construction of a new classroom or the hiring of a new teacher. Floridians want smaller class sizes, but also reasonable and limited flexibility to address unique situations.

It is exactly for that reason that my colleagues and I in the Florida House, including Rep. Weatherford, voted in favor of CS/HB 7043, a 2008 bill that provided a flexible statutory mechanism for implementing the class size amendment while preserving its constitutional integrity and purpose. This bill originated in an education committee I had the pleasure of serving on known as the 21st Century Competitiveness Committee. The committee's chairman worked in bipartisan fashion, eliciting input from Republicans and Democrats and from all stakeholders.

Given that most bills do not pass when first introduced, common sense would dictate that it be filed again, especially given its broad support. So why aren't Weatherford and Gaetz refiling the bill this year? As usual, the answer is money. While the bill I favor would not impact the state's education funding obligations, their bill will reduce education funding by $3.2 billion.

This is unconscionable.

The second bill, which has yet to receive a catchy name, is also being filed by Weatherford. This bill will significantly increase the school voucher program, enabling students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches the opportunity to attend a private school. A student's attendance at the private school is then paid for by corporations who get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit in return for their contributions.

Those who oppose voucher programs typically have three concerns: accountability, separation of church and state, and funding.

Weatherford deserves credit for addressing some accountability issues in his bill, as it provides for financial reporting requirements for any private school that accepts public dollars. It further requires a school-by-school disclosure of standardized test scores for voucher students. I applaud the first part of this new accountability measure, but question how and why we ever approved a voucher program that didn't require financial reporting on the use of taxpayer dollars. Regarding testing, students attending private schools on the taxpayers' dime are not required to take the same standardized test as public school students.

Last year, I filed a bill that would have corrected this problem by requiring voucher students to take the FCAT. While the FCAT and the policies surrounding that test are almost universally disdained, my bill would have at least provided a consistent accountability measure. Unfortunately, House leadership refused to hear my bill.

As to religion being taught in a taxpayer-paid classroom, Weatherford makes no effort to address or correct this in his bill. While I fully support optional religious course electives or clubs in our public schools, teaching a single religion to our students at taxpayer expense is wrong.

Most importantly, vouchers take tax dollars, which would otherwise go toward general revenue and our public school system, and divert those dollars to private schools.

Weatherford was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as stating, "There's no doubt in my mind that public schools will always be the predominant way (of educating students), but that doesn't mean parents shouldn't have a choice."

If our desire is for parents to "have a choice," why continue to diminish the value and quality of our public schools, forcing parents to demand a private one? Public school won't be a choice. It may just cease to exist in Florida.

Bring on the next round of lawsuits.

Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, is the District 53 state representative from St. Petersburg.

Don't diminish the value and quality of our public schools. 02/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2010 3:30am]
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