Fla. vouchers: opportunity vs. headache

Education: As the first statewide school voucher program faces a court challenge, debate over such plans continues.

October 05, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Brenda McShane and her daughter prayed for a voucher. They got one, and now they're praying just as fervently that the courts won't take it away.

Brenisha McShane, 6, is one of 57 Florida pupils attending private and parochial schools in this Gulf Coast city -- initiating the nation's first statewide school voucher plan.

The plan -- giving parents at two failing Pensacola public schools a choice among four Roman Catholic schools, a private Montessori school and other public schools -- has been in effect for more than five weeks. Brenisha is learning a few words of Spanish and rudimentary sign language at the Montessori Early School.

Other voucher kids are saying daily prayers at nearby Sacred Heart Catholic School, their tuitions of about $3,400 paid by Florida taxpayers.

The Sunshine State's plunge into vouchers, meanwhile, is reverberating far beyond this Panhandle school district of 46,000 students. It comes amid a raft of similar proposals. Among them:

George W. Bush, brother of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and front-runner in the Republican race for president, recommended last month that parents in badly failing schools be given federal money to spend on "alternative" forms of education.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York would tie his voucher plan, as does Florida's, to school performance.

In Baltimore, David F. Tufaro, the Republican candidate for mayor, has proposed a voucher plan for parents in failing city schools who cannot afford private-school tuition. His opponent, Democrat Martin O'Malley, says the money would be better spent improving public schools.

Privately financed voucher plans, many supported by philanthropists such as John Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune, have spread to 67 communities, including Baltimore, with at least $250 million committed nationally.

But Florida's day in the sun may be short-lived. Only a few days after the opening of school here, a federal judge in Ohio blocked and then reinstated a limited voucher plan in Cleveland because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. However, in Milwaukee, a voucher plan has survived a decade of court challenges, and the state Supreme Court a year ago allowed its expansion to church schools.

Lawyers for People for the American Way, one of several liberal groups mounting a constitutional challenge in Florida courts, expect the state's plan to be rejected. But Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice, believes the plan will pass legal muster, in part because it "adds a new moral element" -- the aim of improving failing schools.

As for the church-state issue, Heffernan says: "Every government service besides education is provided in some form or another to church-related institutions. Why not education?"

Bush, who pushed the plan through the Florida Legislature in June, crafted the measure to avoid church entanglement. Florida's vouchers are called "opportunity scholarships." State voucher checks are made out to parents and then signed over to the schools. And students can use them to attend other public schools -- 80 other Pensacola pupils did so this fall -- or nonsectarian private schools.

School accountability

But the primary distinction of Florida's "A+ Plan for Education," say its authors, is its direct link to school accountability.

Parents in public schools given an "F" two years out of four on state tests in reading, writing and mathematics are eligible for vouchers worth as much as $4,000. They hold the vouchers as long as their children are in school, even if the school from which they departed gets better grades.

Maryland also holds failing schools accountable, warning them of possible state takeover and helping them come up with reform plans. But Maryland doesn't help students move away from failing schools.

Only two Florida schools -- both in low-income Pensacola neighborhoods -- made the state's failing list this year. But 78 schools across Florida -- including seven others in Pensacola -- have been warned by the state that their students might be given vouchers next year. This has set off efforts to find ways to avoid the ignominy of the "F-list."

Pensacola officials say they were able to accommodate the first wave of voucher recipients but will have trouble if more public schools are placed on the failing list and no more private schools volunteer to participate. A lottery pared down the 92 families that signed up for private-school placement, and most of the 35 that did not get slots opted for higher-performing public schools.

The problem could be even more severe in Miami and other low-income urban and rural districts where poverty and poor performance often go hand in hand. Twenty-six schools in Miami got their first "F" last school year.

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