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Schools rush for voucher deadline

About 120 private schools register, but the state program still faces a legal challenge.

At least 38 more private schools met an extended deadline Monday to register to accept voucher students this fall, bringing the total to about 120 statewide.

Of the total, 41 are Catholic schools, and 31 have other religious affiliations. Voucher proponents don't know how many students the schools will be able to accept _ available seats range from 10 to 200 at each school.

The potential applicant pool is large: When the state releases new school grades this summer, 60,000 students in 78 low-rated public schools could be eligible to receive taxpayer-financed vouchers worth about $3,400 per student to pay private school tuition. (None of the 78 schools is in the Tampa Bay area.)

"The places should be there for most children seeking those places," said Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice.

In mid-April, only 20 private schools had signed up to accept voucher students. The number quadrupled as the original May 1 deadline approached.

State education officials, citing confusion over legal challenges to the voucher program, extended the deadline by three weeks for private schools to decide to accept students who transfer from F-rated public schools.

Some religious school administrators worried they would have to dilute their religious emphasis in order to participate, Heffernan said. "Could they teach religion at all? The answer from the statute is yes," he said, as long as they don't "compel" students to profess a belief.

The new school grades are not expected until mid-June at the earliest. Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said Monday he plans to extend the July 1 deadline for parents with children at newly F-rated schools to choose a higher-ranked public or private school.

By Monday afternoon, it appeared that a total of 118 private schools had registered, though a few applications were still trickling in. The private schools that have registered to accept voucher students represent only 7 percent of the approximately 1,600 private schools.

Voucher proponents, however, say only about 300 of the 1,600 schools are eligible for the program, because the others are in counties with no F-rated public schools or they are full and have waiting lists.

Voucher opponents don't buy that argument.

"We still see very few, relatively very few, private schools wanting to get involved in the voucher program," said David Clark, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union and one of several groups suing the state to stop the voucher program.

A Leon County circuit court judge ruled in March that vouchers violate the state Constitution. The program has been allowed to continue, however, while the state appeals the decision.