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Key education initiatives die

A plan to get Florida's youngest children better prepared for school fell apart in the Legislature Friday, tangled up in the volatile debate over spending tax dollars on private school tuition.

In the end, vouchers failed, along with the "School Readiness Act of 1998" a top priority of legislative leaders and Gov. Lawton Chiles.

"I think we should all be disappointed in the entire state. It was a critical issue," said State Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, D-Miami, a key proponent of the readiness bill.

However, in the last minutes of the session, the Legislature agreed to expand Florida's experiment with charter schools, which are public schools that operate with little government interference.

But the drama of the day was over the readiness bill and the vouchers. Spurred by new brain research and the Governor's Commission on Education, the Legislature sought to coordinate the maze of child care programs in Florida and refocus them on education, not just babysitting.

But what educators and lawmakers agreed was a worthy goal got wrapped up in the controversy over vouchers.

The state House attached a provision that would allow certain children who are behind on their skills to get vouchers to go to a private kindergarten.

The Senate responded with a program that would allow struggling 4-year-olds to use public dollars for remediation in a private school _ before they enter kindergarten. Education dollars would not be used. Instead, the program would be financed by money from Florida's tobacco settlement.

Public educators were far less threatened by the Senate plan, because it was clearly a pre-kindergarten program. School districts already may pay private groups to provide pre-kindergarten programs, so the new plan would not be a radical departure. In addition, the state's subsidized child care program for pre-kindergarten children also gives parents vouchers for programs of their choice.

Allowing a voucher for private kindergarten was a different story, since kindergarten is clearly part of the public school system.

The House kept insisting on the kindergarten voucher plan, and the Senate didn't want to go that far.

"In the end, the Senate did not want to take the heat for creating vouchers," said Roberts-Burke, who advocated the House position.

But she also said the two chambers had differences on other aspects of the readiness bill. One of the major sticking points was whether the bill would allow a retreat from current standards on pre-kindergarten programs, such as teacher-child ratios.

Senate President Toni Jennings, who made readiness a top priority this session, said there wasn't enough time to work out all the issues as the legislative session drew to a close Friday.

"This is too important of an issue to move quickly," she said, promising to revisit the issue next year.

While vouchers failed, the Legislature did approve other school-related legislation in the final hours of the session on Friday.

+ An expansion of charter schools in Florida that get public dollars but operate with little government bureaucracy. The bill allows school districts to double the number of charter schools and give certain schools money for construction.

+ A change in high school graduation requirements. The legislation requires one credit of physical education, up from one-half credit. Participating in an interscholastic sport for two full seasons would satisfy the credit. Elementary and middle schools are encouraged to offer personal fitness courses.

+ An Excellent Teaching Program that gives raises to teachers that go through a rigorous national certification program.

+ Four-year terms for members of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state university system. Terms are now six years.