Proposal ties school vouchers to more popular issue

Aug 4, 2008

Vicki McClure

The Orlando Sentinel


A proposed state constitutional amendment offers what sounds like a simple and painless remedy for improving public education in Florida -- require every school district to spend at least 65 percent of its money on classroom instruction.

But nearly every school district already does that. The real impact of Amendment 9, which a Leon County circuit court judge will consider knocking off the fall ballot today, could be a second mandate that public-school advocates say could have a far greater impact on district budgets -- legalized taxpayer support for private-school tuition.

About 300,000 students in Florida attend private schools in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the state Education Department. If all became eligible for tuition reimbursement -- or vouchers -- districts could lose as much as $2.3 billion in state and local revenue, said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

"You could instantly have a huge run on public-education dollars," he said.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of Foundation for Florida's Future, which supports vouchers, called the concerns "doomsday scenarios." She said that if voters approved Amendment 9, legislators would determine what school-choice programs would be eligible for tax funding.

"That is something Wayne made up in his head," said Levesque, who was deputy chief of staff for education under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

All but seven of Florida's 67 school districts already spend at least 65 percent on teachers, counselors, librarians and other instruction-related costs, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of expenditures for the 2006-07 school year. Five missed by a single percentage point.

The two districts that spent far less were Charlotte County, which was devastated by Hurricane Charley and is having to spend about a third of its operating costs on facility needs; and Glades County.

All districts in Central Florida exceeded the target.


1 issue popular, the other not

The 65 percent requirement appears popular with voters. Polls conducted in April and June by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that six of 10 registered voters supported it.

Vouchers, however, are not popular: More than half of those polled said they opposed allowing parents to use tax money for their child's tuition at private or religious schools.

Critics of Amendment 9 charged that the two issues were paired so that voters would be fooled into approving vouchers.

"This is an effort to amend the constitution by ambush," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, which represent teachers. "This is not the proper way to deal with our founding document."

The FEA and other opponents sued to remove the amendment from the ballot, contending in part that the title and summary language are misleading. Amendment 9 does not use the term "vouchers," though it states the measure "reverses legal precedent prohibiting public funding of private school alternatives."

Advocates said the two issues were paired because they concerned the same goal.

"We thought they were both policy issues that had to do with education spending," said Greg Turbeville, a lobbyist and former policy director for Bush who sat on the state commission that put the amendment on the ballot.


Vouchers a repeated target

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's first voucher program, called Opportunity Scholarships. The court said the vouchers violated the constitutional requirement to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." The program, enacted by Bush shortly after he became governor, paid for children to leave failing public schools and attend private ones.

Advocates successfully raised the issue this spring with the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, an appointed body that meets about once every 20 years to examine the state budgetary process and propose constitutional changes to voters.

Martha Barnett, a lobbyist and attorney who sat on the commission, said she opposed vouchers because she felt voters already had "spoken loud and clearly about the value of free public education in the state."

She was a member of the Constitution Revision Commission a decade ago that put an amendment on the ballot adding the very language the court cited in knocking down vouchers.

"The words we used were carefully considered and selected to create a system that the legislators knew, if adopted by the people, that it [free public schools] was the highest duty," Barnett said. "This [Amendment 9] could potentially damage our public-education system in dramatic ways. We barely have enough money for it now."

Levesque, who sat on the tax commission with Barnett, said that, given the current budget climate, she doubts legislators would want to take on all the private school kids at the expense of about 2.6 million who attend public schools.

"All I want is for our education system to be adaptable to each child," she said. "This ensures the Legislature can make new programs that meet every child's need."




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