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The school bullies // PUBLIC SCHOOLS

If Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, has his way, Florida would become the first state in the nation to implement a statewide school voucher program. McKay and supporters of his legislation apparently want Florida to become the first state in the nation to destroy its public school system.

After the Senate Education Committee approved his measure by a 5-4 vote, McKay said, "This is a win-win bill for everybody."

Everybody? Surely McKay knows better. Vouchers may be a winner for some groups, but they would be a loser for most low-income and minority students dependent upon public schools. Under the proposal, tax dollars would be used to educate students attending private schools, including sectarian schools. Parents could request vouchers _ worth 80 percent of the cost of sending their children to public school _ for tuition at a private school.

Not only could students who transfer from public to private school get tax dollars, but students already attending private schools also could feed at the public trough. Private schools wanting public funds would be required to teach English, math, science, history and geography, comply with minimum health standards, and submit regular reports on student achievement and promise not to discriminate.

Critics of the bill have several legitimate concerns. One of the most serious is that low-income students will be shortchanged _ again. Not to worry, McKay says. Such students would get a full-value certificate to attend the private school of their choice. The downside is that they still would have to come up with the balance if the tuition exceeds the amount of the certificate. The truth is that most poor children would be unable to make up the difference and would be left behind.

Another concern is that vouchers would drain precious tax dollars from a public school system already financially strapped and facing more deep cuts.

McKay and others are dreaming when they argue that the advantages of vouchers far outweigh the disadvantages because the program would engender competition. "I have a strong belief that competition isgood in every walk of life," McKay said. "True competition is opening up the marketplace, in letting consumers make the choices."

Well, of course, competition is a good thing, but McKay is not talking about competition or the marketplace. He and his backers want to take public money to create a separate system that serves the needs of those who have given up on public schools. Sure, some low-income students would receive certificates, but the vast majority would not.

None of this is to say there is no place for private education in this country. There is. But public money should not be used against itself, to further undermine public education. And most certainly public money should not go to sectarian schools. The Florida constitution forbids it.

In the same vein, the House and the Senate approved separate charter school plans this week. Although the plans are vastly different, both, like the voucher proposal, obfuscate the real issue of improving public education.

The backers of vouchers and charter schools claim they want competition. All right, let's have real competition. Let's make all of our schools SUPER schools.

How? By bringing back discipline. By giving teachers the authority to run their classrooms (and by raising their salaries). By giving the schools a way to remove unruly students from the classroom _ while having a viable alternative for them. By establishing real academic standards that require all students to take and pass demanding core courses. By recognizing that forces outside of school, such as family problems, crime, drugs and peer pressure can directly affect school performance. By funding all schools appropriately.

Much of the debate over vouchers and charter schools has been a ruse, a cynical hoax that allows legislators to avoid confronting the real challenge of improving the public system, a system that is responsible for educating and democratizing the masses. With honest effort, we can repair our schools. We don't need more schemes that serve the desires of a select few.