Tue, May. 02, 2006
School vouchers killed by one vote; senate majority leader asked to resign
BY GARY FINEOUT AND MARY ELLEN KLAS
TALLAHASSEE - In a stinging loss for Gov. Jeb Bush's education legacy, the state Senate narrowly defeated a plan to ask voters to protect and expand his voucher program that sends public money to private schools.
The Republican-controlled Senate killed the proposed constitutional amendment by a single vote, with four Republicans -- including Majority Leader Alex Villalobos of Miami -- rejecting a hard sell from the governor that the measure was needed to reverse a recent state Supreme Court decision that ruled his 1999 voucher program unconstitutional.
Villalobos, whose wife is a schoolteacher, paid a steep price: Senate President Tom Lee stripped him of his post as majority leader minutes after the vote, saying he no longer viewed the Miami senator as a team player.
The proposal before senators would have exempted vouchers from language in the Florida Constitution that bans using public money for religious education and from language that requires a uniform system of free public schools.
The measure needed a three-fifths vote -- 24 of 40 senators -- to go on the November ballot, but died when it could muster only 23.
It was the second time in as many votes that the Senate rejected putting an education amendment prized by the governor before voters. On Friday, six Republicans also broke ranks with Lee and the governor to kill a proposal to loosen the class-size caps voters approved in 2002. Among the six: Villalobos.
''Not only did I not get organized support, unfortunately at times I received organized opposition,'' Lee said of Villalobos. ``It's a very unpleasant thing for me. It's a very sad thing for me.''
Villalobos defended what he said was a vote of conscience intended to do what was best for his district.
''I never asked anyone to vote against the president and I never would,'' he said. ``I serve at the pleasure of the president. He giveth. He taketh away.''
Villalobos has been a pivotal player in internal Senate politics all session, after a group of disgruntled colleagues decided in February to remove him as the designated Senate president in 2008.
As Senate sergeants removed Villalobos' nameplate from his desk on the Senate floor late Monday and replaced it with that of the new majority leader -- Sen. Dan Webster, a Winter Garden Republican -- Villalobos' supporters crowded into his office to blast Lee's move.
''This is a shock and disappointment in the president,'' said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, a Republican from Ormond Beach. ``There has never been any question Sen. Villalobos has been a team player . . . I'm very disappointed in the action that was taken today. I never thought it would come to this.''
Webster, the sponsor of the vouchers amendment, said the Senate will immediately move to mend the damage for the governor and take up an alternative voucher bill today.
The bill, which does not require voter approval, attempts to protect vouchers for the 733 students using them in private schools by putting them into the voucher program paid for by corporate sponsors, which was not struck down by the courts. But senators are unsure that will pass legal muster. The high court ordered the private-school vouchers to end when the current school year is finished.
The vouchers -- called Opportunity Scholarships -- were offered to students in schools that received failing grades in accountability measures in two years out of four. The voucher could be used in another public school or a private one that would take it.
In a terse statement, Bush said it was wrong that voters would not get to decide the fate of voucher programs.
''I am disappointed that the citizens of Florida were not given an opportunity to be heard,'' Bush said, accusing ''individual senators'' of ''turning their backs'' on voters.
The vote late Monday capped a tense day when it was evident that Republicans were trying hard to muster the needed votes. Twice the Senate recessed as attempts were made to count votes.
Before the vote, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings chatted with senators during a recess. The governor deployed top education aides to talk to senators. And Webster spent time talking with some of the Republican holdouts.
Amid the turmoil, some of Villalobo's GOP supporters and a number of Democrats began suggesting that Webster would be a better man to lead the chamber starting this fall than incoming Senate president Ken Pruitt. The Port St. Lucie Republican failed Friday to get colleagues to pass the governor's class-cap scale-back, which he had sponsored. It was a sign of weakness at the time he is supposed to be assuming the ultimate reins of power in the Senate.
On Monday, other voucher supporters focused on trying to persuade black senators, whose constituents, they said, benefit most from the voucher program.
Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley -- a large contributor to the state GOP and a firm believer in vouchers -- and a group he helped found, Florida Committee for Educational Freedom, brought 65 parents, activists and educators to the Capitol on Monday to meet with at least six swing senators.
Kirtley said the campaign has raised enough to pay for radio ads in the predominantly black districts of two senators from Orlando and Jacksonville, which have the highest concentration of voucher schools.
''I wouldn't be against school choice when I have all those those kids and all those parents in my district who want school choice,'' Kirtley said.
Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.
© 2006 MiamiHerald.com and wire service sources.