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Voucher bill would curb choice

Pasco's school choice program would be scaled back to cut the numbers eligible for vouchers.

A legislative proposal that would give private school vouchers to children at severely crowded public schools might result in fewer options for parents taking advantage of the district's school choice program.

That's because if the proposal becomes law, the district might scale back, or even eliminate, its choice program at about a crowded dozen schools in an attempt to limit the number of students eligible for a voucher.

It's all very iffy at this point because nobody's sure if the voucher bill will become law, but district officials are nevertheless analyzing their school choice data to begin planning changes.

"This is something that we definitely have to watch," said Bob Dorn, the district administrator in charge of middle and high schools. "We don't want (school choice) to artificially create a voucher situation."

The proposal, a pet program of House Speaker Tom Feeney, would give any student at a severely crowded public school a $3,000-a-year voucher to transfer to a private school. The proposal defines a severely crowded school as one housing at least 20 percent more students than it was designed to hold. There are eight such schools in Pasco, and they are home to more than 11,600 students.

Some of those eight schools could see their crowding greatly reduced if the district removed them from the school choice program, which allows children to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. State law requires Florida school districts to offer parents some sort of school choice program.

Each year about 5,000 children take advantage of the choice program, and at some schools their enrollment exacerbates crowding. . For example, Ridgewood High School this year has squeezed 1,700 students onto a campus designed to hold 1,300. The school is 35 percent over capacity, and if the proposed law passes, each student there would be eligible for a private school voucher.

But more than 300 students attend Ridgewood through the choice program. Eliminate those choice kids, and Ridgewood would be crowded by about only 100 students, and none of its students would qualify for the voucher. The same could be true for at least five other Pasco schools, including Deer Park Elementary.

With about 160 school choice students, Deer Park is one of the most popular schools among choice parents. Choice kids make up about 18 percent of the school's total enrollment, and this year the school is 200 students over its capacity.

Principal Peggy Lewis said she would like to keep Deer Park's doors open for as many families as possible, but there comes a point where crowding problems make it impossible to take all who apply. Traffic on nearby Trouble Creek Road, long lunch periods and parking all become problems when enrollments swell beyond a school's capacity she said.

District officials say they have let enrollments on some campuses grow because they tried to accommodate parents who want to use school choice, even if that meant a few schools got too big.

"Because of choice, we've allowed some of this crowding to occur," said Superintendent John Long. "We would not stop school choice, but we would stop it at those schools."

Crowded schools

There are currently eight schools in Pasco County that house 20 percent more students than they were designed to hold. Under a legislative proposal, students at those schools would be eligible for a $3,000-a-year voucher to attend private school.

School Enrollment Percent crowded

Fox Hollow Elementary 979 46%

Sand Pine Elementary 951 45%

Ridgewood High 1,769 40%

Lake Myrtle Elementary 1,059 35%

Schrader Elementary 706 28%

Land O'Lakes High 1,662 22%

Woodland Elementary 1,013 21%

Deer Park Elementary 903 21%

Source: Pasco County School District

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