Lawmaker slams education chief on vouchers

Aug 2, 2003

Cynthia Kopkowski & Kimberly Miller

The Palm Beach Post

State Rep. Dan Gelber crashed Education Commissioner Jim Horne's party Friday, commandeering the microphone at a roundtable on corporate vouchers to criticize what he called "an infomercial" for an $88 million program with no accountability.

"The state doesn't know which students are in this program, how much money they're getting, or what's being spent on administration," said Gelber, D-Miami-Dade.

The Miami meeting was the second of three on the voucher program. The third took place in West Palm Beach later Friday with no incidents.

The 2001 law that created the corporate tax credit scholarships does not require the education department to monitor curriculum, teacher certification, test scores, or even whether employees at schools that accept vouchers have had criminal background checks.

Wedged into a seat between invited participants, Gelber accused Horne's department of flouting state law requiring the drafting of eligibility rules and illegally spending public money on religious schools.

"The moment you take state money and put it into private entities, at that point the state has the obligation to know how that money is being spent, Gelber said.

Watching the tightly scripted event at Archbishop Curley High School unravel, Horne stepped in.

"With all due respect, there are rules in place," Horne said, calling state law that created the program the very rules that critics have said don't exist.

"It's not a perfect system," he said, nor has the state's documentation of the voucher's effectiveness been infallible. "It's been reported that there probably is some public scrutiny. As we accumulate this information, I'm confident we can make it available to prove students are being served."

Gelber, an attorney elected to the House in 2000, serves on several judiciary and insurance committees and the health access subcommittee. Known for his outgoing personality and effectiveness in Tallahassee, he drafted the LifeSaver RX prescription drug bill discounting medicine for Florida elderly, which passed both the House and Senate. He is the father of two young girls who attend public schools.

"We don't know anything"

In West Palm Beach, opponents to the voucher plan also were given a seat at the table Friday as Horne allowed Democratic House members Shelley Vana, D-West Palm Beach, and Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, to voice their discontent.

Although the discussion at the 130-student Redemptive Life Christian Academy on Australian Avenue was more subdued than the raucous debate in Miami, the accolades and concerns about the program were the same.

"We don't know who is in these schools, who the teachers are, who goes there, what they teach, we don't know anything," Vana said. "We need to have open records and when will that happen so that we can feel good about what we are doing?"

Senate Democrats and House Republicans recently called for greater accountability in the program since learning two weeks ago that Florida PRIDE gave $350,000 last year to the Islamic Academy of Florida, whose cofounder and director was indicted and charged with having terrorist links.

In addition, a department employee accused administrators of altering letters of fiscal accountability sent in response to requests by The Palm Beach Post. The department's own internal investigation said there was no evidence to prove those allegations. Other accountability issues have arisen: Private schools have been accepting the voucher money for more than a year, but the first audits of the scholarship granting organizations are not due until 2004, and questionable schools received vouchers for disabled students.

The 2-year-old corporate voucher program allows nonprofit "scholarship funding organizations" to accept corporate donations. The organizations then provide $3,500 scholarships to poor children. In return, corporations get a dollar-for-dollar break on their state tax bills.

Roundtable participant John Kirtley, head of the scholarship funding organization Florida PRIDE, joined Horne in denying claims that millions dedicated to the programs aren't being monitored.

"We have already submitted our audit to the state," Kirtley said during Friday morning's roundtable. "We go above and beyond what the law requires. Whatever standard you want to place on the scholarship funds, bring it on."

According to the auditor general's office, Florida PRIDE's audit, dated July 14, arrived at the Tallahassee office Friday afternoon by overnight mail. PRIDE also sent the audits for Children First Central Florida dated Dec. 6, 2002, and YES Opportunities, dated July 22, said Ted Sauerbeck, audit supervisor.

A letter included with the audits said another will arrive soon from Heroes, Sauerbeck said. A separate letter from Academy Prep Foundation Inc. said its audit will be in the mail soon.

Both Sens. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, and David Aronberg, D-Greenacres, said they did not receive invitations to Friday's roundtable events. The Senate Democratic Office said its only communication from Horne was an e-mail sent to its Web site offering a meeting before the Miami roundtable.

"We're doing all the things that we're supposed to be," a visibly frustrated Horne said after the Miami event, throwing his hands up from his sides.

Nearby, three voucher supporters, including members of the roundtable talk, got into a shouting match with Gelber and several attendees supporting the representative.

"I think what's in place is enough," Horne said.

Parents voice support

At the West Palm meeting, parents participating in the roundtable agreed, speaking in support of the voucher system. Their children are doing better in the private schools, they said in an assessment that voucher supporters called the ultimate accountability Friday. Parents voiced concern that the controversy could derail the voucher program.

"The results are phenomenal," said parent Renford Williams, whose daughter attends Redemptive Life with a voucher and who has attended only private schools. "I thank God for the scholarships."

Horne said he believes the voucher program has become too political. American, he said, was founded on a free market system where informed consumers create the best checks and balances.

"We get to choose. We don't have to go to the government store anymore," Horne said. When we talk about marketplace accountability, what works best is when consumers are given information."

Horne said he is developing a lengthier summit in Tallahassee that would include public comment and participation from legislators. Details such as location, time and format are being worked out, he said.

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