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House Approves Voucher Plan

BY Charles Savage
by Charles Savage on 3/23/01.

The Florida House of Representatives approved a proposal by two Miami lawmakers Thursday that would offer $3,000 vouchers for private school tuition to students attending overcrowded public schools.

But two days of sound and fury about whether Republicans or Democrats care more for "the children" leading up to the 63-54 vote, mostly along party lines, signified next to nothing: Its companion bill is already all but dead in the Senate Education Committee at the hands of chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

"I'm not going to hear the bill," Pruitt confirmed Thursday. "It's detrimental to the local school districts, and I have no intention of hearing it."

The bill, sponsored in the House by Miami Republicans Carlos Lacasa and Renier Diaz de la Portilla, defines "overcrowded school" as one at 120 percent of its capacity. The bill calls for granting parents of students at overcrowded schools a portion of the state's per-student spending to take with them to a private school of their choice.

Republican supporters claimed the bill would empower poor and middle-class parents who could not otherwise afford private school tuition to give their children a better education immediately. They defined the debate as a struggle between poor parents and teachersunions.

"As a public school teacher, I support parents having a choice," said Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah. "I am a proponent of public schools. However, I believe parents should be given a choice when there is overcrowding and the school district has not taken adequate steps to address the problem."

Democratic opponents criticized the bill as a false "quick fix" that would divert millions of dollars away from public schools, that would potentially subsidize wealthy parents as well as poor ones, and that would lack standards about what sort of private institutions the public funds would flow to.

"This bill is not about decreasing school overcrowding, nor is it about solving our critical teaching shortage or reducing class size or starting children earlier in school," said Rep. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise.

"This is a voucher scheme that will funnel public dollars to private schools
- money that should be spend on real solutions to improve our public schools and providing children with high quality free public schools as called for in our constitution."

About 200 people rallied in front of the Capitol in support of the bill Wednesday morning, many wearing red Citizens for a Sound Economy T-shirts. That included about 20 South Florida parents and children bused up by the fiscally conservative organization.

Shirley Blass, 11, was among them, alongside her mother Maura Blass. The fifth-grader at Sylvania Heights Elementary School in West Miami said there are about 35 students in her class, and she would like the opportunity to attend a nearby Catholic school instead.

"I raise my hand, and the teacher is not looking at me because she has to look at everyone," Blass said.

During the rally, House Speaker Tom Feeney invoked the 20th Century free market economist Milton Friedman, saying that a government monopoly in public education has led to higher prices and lower quality.

He added that even though government spending has surged during the past half-century, science and math test scores in the United States have fallen below those of many other industrialized countries.

"We cannot be internationally competitive unless we have a little bit of competition at home," Feeney told the crowd.

Carlos Muhletaler, Citizens for a Sound Economy South Florida Coordinator, said he hoped the issue would back next year.