Monday, March 19, 2007

School vouchers lose champions with Bush's exit

School vouchers lose champions with Bush's exit
By S.V Date
Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
Saturday, March 17, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — A year ago: After a state Supreme Court ruling struck down school vouchers, Republican leaders moved heaven and earth in an attempt to revive them with a constitutional amendment, all to please a governor who considered them his personal legacy.

Without the strong personality of former Gov. Jeb Bush pushing a particular policy in the Capitol, "school choice," as proponents call it, is generating much less enthusiasm this year than it has in the previous eight.

A handful of pro-voucher bills have been filed in both chambers, but nothing as sweeping as Bush's proposal - ultimately unsuccessful - to insert wording into the state constitution specifically permitting the spending of public money at private schools.

The Florida Supreme Court in January 2006 struck down Bush's first voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarship Program. When he pushed the idea through the legislature during his first months in office in 1999, it became the first statewide voucher plan in the country and gave parents of students at failing public schools state money to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

While most participants in the issue expected the court to rule on the basis of language in the state constitution prohibiting public money from going to religious institutions, justices deciding the Bush vs. Holmes lawsuit instead found that the state had no authority to set up an education system outside of the system of free public schools specifically mandated in the constitution.

That broad approach appeared to immediately threaten the two other statewide voucher programs created after the Opportunity Scholarships - the McKay Scholarships for disabled children and the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for poorer children - but no lawsuits challenging those programs have been filed. The two remaining programs enroll a total of 34,513 children, compared with 734 getting the Opportunity vouchers at the time of the court ruling.

Bush's proposed constitutional amendment had strong support in the House but failed to get the three-fifths support it needed in the Senate by a single vote after Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and two of his allies bucked Bush and voted with the 14 Democrats in the chamber.

This occurred even after Bush and his staff tried in their final year to install their supporters and allies in positions of influence in the legislature, the Department of Education and outside interest groups in hopes of continuing his education politics. A new position at the Education Department was even described as a "protect legacy issues" job in an e-mail to Bush.

But since taking office in January, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has aggressively put his own stamp on state government through new appointments to executive branch jobs and advisory panels, new budget recommendations and new policy priorities.

During his campaign for governor, Crist said he supported vouchers - a stance he repeated last week. But he said the court ruling makes the issue much more difficult to address.

"The courts have weighed in on that," he said. "What I'm trying to do now is, number one in education, pay our teachers more.

"There's only so much time and only so much energy. And I'm trying to do things that are as productive as possible to improve education, public education."

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, the state leader who many assumed would be Bush's ideological heir, said he still supports vouchers but has his own battles to win.

"I'm a tax cutter. I'm doing property taxes," Rubio said.

"It's always a priority," he said of school choice. "It's just that other issues have kind of captured the attention. Property tax is an all-consuming deal, you know, and it's taking up a lot of our time."

Legislative leaders said privately that voucher proponents and Bush harmed their own effort by aggressively trying, but failing, to unseat Villalobos in his Republican primary bid last September.

Further, the most vocal supporters of vouchers in the House supported Crist's primary opponent, Tom Gallagher, last summer, thereby losing potential leverage with the new governor.

Bills that would expand the corporate income tax voucher program to 500 foster children and the disabled school voucher to children with a diagnosis of autism have sponsors in both chambers, although neither bill addresses the more fundamental question of how these programs square with the January 2006 Supreme Court ruling.

"There seems to be some bills that expand vouchers as though there were no Bush vs. Holmes," said Ron Meyer, the teachers union lawyer who successfully shepherded the nearly six-year lawsuit through the various courts.
The lack of any further lawsuits challenging the remaining two programs could be a reason, he said.
"Perhaps they're feeling emboldened by that," Meyer said.

Voucher proponents and their legislative allies acknowledge the threat of additional lawsuits, however, in their bills. Included in the proposal to expand the corporate tax credit vouchers is a section protecting corporate donors who receive credits from the state from having to give them up in the event the program is struck down.

And former Senate President Jim King, who after three years managed to impose some oversight and safeguards on the remaining two programs after a string of publicized abuses, has sponsored a bill creating an 18-year "transition" program to pay for the continued schooling of children in the McKay program, should it be struck down.

Webster, R-Winter Garden, pushed a bill last spring that would have created a new tax credit program to pay for failing school vouchers in lieu of the Opportunity Scholarships, but he was unable to win House approval. He has refiled the bill this year but so far lacks a House sponsor.

Meanwhile, Democrats said they are aware of the voucher proposals and will be on the lookout for attempts to dramatically expand the programs by using the usual legislative tactic of filing amendments on the chamber floors in the frenzied final days of the spring session.

"I'm not sure how that succeeds," said Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, citing the tight budget year as well as the Supreme Court ruling. "We'll be watching."

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