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Bush rallies for voucher vote

Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday they hope will keep private school vouchers intact despite a crippling court ruling.

"This is a fundamental right we all should have," Bush told 4,000 cheering voucher supporters, most of them African-American, on the steps of the Old Capitol building. Let voters decide, he said, "whether or not poor, minority and disabled students should have the same options" as wealthy students.

A joint resolution laying out the details of the amendment is expected before the beginning of the legislative session March 7. If lawmakers give their okay, the proposal would appear on the November ballot.

Then comes the hard part: Passing muster with a skeptical public. National polls show people are sharply split on vouchers.

"You got 4,000 people up here, but the majority of people are either saying, "We don't want vouchers' or saying, "The Supreme Court has spoken, let's move on,' " said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa. "There's a group of people out there who can't take no for an answer."

Vouchers were central to Bush's education overhaul when he was elected in 1998, and now extend to more than 30,000 students - mostly low-income, minority and disabled - in three separate programs. But their future has never been more in doubt.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the smallest of the programs, Opportunity Scholarships, saying it violated constitutional restrictions against public money going to private schools.

Experts said the ruling threatens other voucher offerings, including the state's pre-K program.

Supporters, meanwhile, denounced the decision as the whim of activist judges and vowed a fix.

A short-term remedy already is on the table.

Some lawmakers want to change the funding source for Opportunity Scholarships to make them more like another voucher program, the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships, which offers businesses credit for donating state corporate taxes to organizations that provide vouchers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee decided Wednesday to introduce such a plan in the upcoming session.

Legal observers say tax credit vouchers may be harder for opponents to overturn, but there's no guarantee. And that still leaves in limbo the McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities.

Hence, the call for a constitutional amendment.

Wording for a proposed amendment is still being crafted by legislative leaders and the governor's office.

But Bush said Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie - who are in line to be the next leaders of their respective chambers - have agreed to serve as chief sponsors.

"That's a fairly telling sign that there's going to be support for this," Bush told reporters after the rally. He said it's possible a constitutional fix might require two amendments.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said any constitutional solution is likely to deal with the broader issue of legislative power to create programs such as vouchers - a power he said was called into question by the court ruling.

Asked whether the amendment could wind up pitting lawmakers against the courts, Baxley, who chairs the House Education Council, said, "Obviously, we need some further guidance from the people as to how these roles fit."

Many attending Wednesday's rally didn't care about the specifics. They just wanted their vouchers.

Hundreds sported black shirts with orange letters that said "S.O.S." - "Save Our Students" - over the image of a life preserver and a child reading a book.

Some boarded buses at midnight to make it to the 11 a.m. rally on time.

Rally organizers said national school choice organizations footed most of the bill.

"I'm worried. I want him to stay in private school," said Lake City resident Charles Shaw, 73, referring to his grandson, Andrew Clayton.

Andrew has a learning disability and attends Lake City Christian Academy on a voucher. He was struggling and anxious in public school, Shaw said. Now, with one-on-one attention, he's "happy and learning," Shaw said. "That's the bottom line."

Shannon Coates, a single mom in St. Petersburg, obtained a voucher for her 8-year-old daughter after the Pinellas school choice plan assigned Taylor, then in kindergarten, to a school far from home. Now Taylor attends Yvonne C. Reed Christian School, where mom says she's thriving in a small setting where Christian teachings are part of the mix.

"The ultimate goal is the child should be able to succeed," Coates said. "Some kids can't succeed in public school."

For voucher supporters, their immediate goal is a number: 24.

To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, 24 of 40 senators must sign off.

Republicans hold 26 seats, but Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he is firmly opposed. Assuming all 14 Democrats stick together, it would take only two more Republican votes to ground an amendment.

A favorable vote is "very tight," said Jones.

Public support is divided, too.

Several national polls, including one last year by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional educators' group, have found a majority of people oppose vouchers.

Asked whether they favor allowing students to attend a private school at public expense, 57 percent of respondents said no in 2005, up from 50 percent in 1998.

Support for vouchers tends to fall along political party lines, with many Republicans in support and many Democrats in opposition. But there are key crossover constituencies in both camps, said Chad d'Entremont, assistant director for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, based at Columbia University's Teachers College.

On the Democrat's side, support for vouchers is stronger among African-Americans and Latinos, whose children are more likely to attend struggling schools.

The overwhelming majority of the 700 students who hold Opportunity Scholarships are minorities, as are many of those receiving vouchers through tax credit programs.

On the other hand, some white, suburban Republicans are less supportive of vouchers because they like their local public schools and see vouchers as a redistribution of tax money to other schools far away.

Bush expressed confidence Wednesday, saying vouchers could win public approval if properly framed by a good campaign.

When it comes to choosing schools for their children, some people have choices and some people don't, he said.

"That's an un-American concept, in my opinion."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.

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