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Voucher battle is near but won't end war

The "V" word has replaced the "T" word as the most volatile subject in Florida politics.

With both Republicans and Democrats eliminating "tax" from their vocabularies, the latest litmus test is whether the state should issue a voucher that would offer public money to pay for private school tuition. It is an evolving debate that transcends political, class and racial lines, influenced by core beliefs about the value of public education and the separation of church and state.

And it could come to a head this week.

As the Florida Legislature sprints toward its scheduled adjournment Friday, Republican House Speaker Daniel Webster is playing a game of chicken with Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Webster wants to give low-performing preschoolers a voucher to attend private kindergartens operated by either non-religious or religious groups, an unprecedented use of public money in Florida.

Chiles counters that using public money that way would erode the quality of public education. He is expected to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The outcome of this legislative showdown will not be the last word Floridians hear on the subject.

Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for governor, also wants to experiment with the use of vouchers for low-income students in an area where the public schools are not first-rate. While he does not often raise the subject on the campaign trail unless he is asked, campaign manager Sally Harrell said Bush considers vouchers to be one of several options for improving education.

"When schools are failing, as they clearly are in Florida, we need to try something new," Harrell said.

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, opposes vouchers and plans to make the issue a focal point of the campaign.

"Excellent public schools are one of the two or three issues that define the future of this state," MacKay said, "and I don't think vouchers do anything that helps with that."

Supporters of using public money to help pay for private tuition contend it is just another way to ensure that Florida's youngsters have an opportunity to obtain a quality education.

"There is nothing wrong with an experiment that gives disadvantaged youths an education they are being denied," said Tom Slade, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Gaining national attention

Florida's voucher fight is heating up just as the issue is receiving more attention nationally.

Only two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, are using public money on any significant scale to pay for private tuition for several thousand low-income, minority children. The experiments are so new, there is little information on whether they have benefited the students who used the vouchers to attend private school.

An evaluation of the Cleveland program released this month, for example, found students using vouchers to attend private schools had no better test scores than similar students in public schools.

Yet President Clinton and Republicans in Congress are battling over a plan that would use federal money to pay for vouchers for low-income children in the District of Columbia and a handful of other cities. House Republicans are pushing vouchers as a way for district students to escape one of the worst school systems in the country. Clinton pledges to veto it.

Meanwhile, published reports indicate school boards and legislatures in roughly two dozen states are debating vouchers.

That includes Florida.

Pushing issue in Florida

The battle in Tallahassee is driven as much by Webster's personal views as by election-year politics. Webster, a conservative legislator from Orlando who is closely aligned with the religious right, has long believed in using public money for private tuition.

Webster has linked vouchers with two programs Chiles supports: an expansion of subsidized health insurance to thousands of children and an overhaul of programs aimed at better preparing preschoolers for kindergarten.

As the session winds down, House Republicans have floated a variety of alternatives, including an experimental kindergarten voucher program in Orange County and a voucher program limited to 500 low-income kindergarteners. Chiles and MacKay say there is no room for compromise.

Webster contends there is no difference between providing government money to help low-income people buy food, rent housing and obtain day care, and offering public money to pay for private kindergarten.

"If the goal is to get children ready for school, then why not try everything out there?" he asked.

House Republicans also are benefiting from the division between black and white Democrats over the ouster of a black legislator, Rep. Willie Logan, as their incoming leader. The sponsor of the voucher legislation is a black woman, Democratic Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke of Miami.

Logan is another supporter of the plan, although he opposes the broad use of vouchers beyond kindergarten.

But Chiles and MacKay see the House legislation as opening the door to wider use of vouchers and a system in which all parents, regardless of income, could use public money to send their children to private school. They question whether low-income families who obtained vouchers would have to pay additional money to cover private tuition and whether many private schools would even accept underperforming students.

"It's so clear," Chiles said. "You put that money into a voucher, and people already in a private school will want vouchers, and that's going to take away a lot of money. I fear you are going to lose support for public schools."

Real test at the polls

The political risks that vouchers pose for politicians are great. National polls suggest Americans are divided on the use of public money for private schools, with blacks favoring vouchers more than whites.

In Florida, both the Republican and the Democratic state parties have conducted recent opinion polls on the issue. Democrats say a poll taken this year shows a slim majority against vouchers; Republicans say the results depend upon the wording of the question.

Use the word "voucher," Slade said, and the poll results are not that encouraging. "If you call them scholarships for disadvantaged youths," he said, "you get an enormously positive reaction."

Florida's two largest teacher unions, FTP-NEA and FEA-United, are against vouchers in any form. So are the Florida PTA and the Florida branch of the NAACP. On the other side, the most vocal organized advocate for vouchers is the Christian Coalition.

In the governor's race, Democrats hope to portray Bush as a pawn of the religious right; Republicans contend MacKay is a puppet of the teacher unions.

Both political parties see anecdotal evidence in Florida that vouchers are gaining support among black voters and observe that the issue transcends partisan politics.

"We don't have to have leaders tell us what to think," said Watson Haynes of St. Petersburg, a black Democrat-turned-Republican on Bush's local steering committee. "African-Americans have been sending their children to private schools with their own money. A lot of them would send their kids to private schools if they could afford it."

But there also is ample evidence that many white Republicans do not support vouchers.

As president of the Pinellas Council of PTAs, Cindy Ehrenzeller of Clearwater makes a non-partisan pitch against vouchers as a threat to public education.

But as a parent and registered Republican, she said, she will have to think twice about voting for Bush because of his support for vouchers.

"I would sure have to hear his logic on that," Ehrenzeller said. "The Legislature has said we could throw money at public education and it would not improve. Just once I would like to see them throw the money."

There are even differences among the three Democratic candidates for governor. Like MacKay, former Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven opposes vouchers. But Rep. Keith Arnold of Fort Myers said he supports experimenting with vouchers, even though he voted against the House Republican plan.

Bush began his unsuccessful campaign for governor four years ago with a broader proposal for vouchers than the limited experiment he now supports. But that does not satisfy Pat Tornillo, head of the FEA-United teachers' union.

"I'm trying to get him to come off it, but he's not quite there yet," Tornillo said. "The real test of vouchers is going to be at the polls."