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Voucher plan changes: Is it politics or progress?;

by MARILYN BROWN on 5/31/01.

TAMPA - Florida's voucher program remains alive but is facing changes after school grades improve.

America's only statewide school voucher program, once either feared or hoped to encompass hundreds of schools, is changing fast.

Because Florida's annual report card flunked no schools this year, Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher program remains stalled at 51 students from two Escambia County schools who are using public money to pay private school tuition.

Just two years ago, with 78 F schools, supporters and opponents alike predicted a rapid expansion of the program. But they shouldn't be surprised in light of the program's nature, the national mood and the political ambitions at stake, experts said Wednesday.

"You raise and lower the (grading) standards depending on what you think is going to work the best for you politically," said John Belohlavek, a University of South Florida political scientist and Democratic Party activist.

Bush and his Republican allies have pushed high-stakes testing as the best way to improve education, but "there's already beginning to be a backlash against testing in this state and nationally," Belohlavek said.

Bush campaigned in 1998 promising to help children "trapped in failing schools." But now he can take credit for spurring the improved grades while defusing a touchy issue as he faces a potentially nasty re-election fight in 2002.

Florida's voucher program instead is changing - with recent legislation that expands the alternatives for parents of disabled students and that gives companies a tax break if they provide private school money to poor children.

"I think they're on the right track," said Kevin Teasley, president of the nonprofit Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation in Indianapolis. "Florida's model didn't exactly empower parents. When the government says a school is a failing school, the government is in the driver's seat."

Even Bush supporters agree the original plan may not have been best.

"There is a better way, but politicians don't like it," said John Kirtley, a Tampa investor deeply involved in the private Children's Scholarship Fund, which pays the majority of private school tuition for poor families.

Kirtley suggests the voucher models of Milwaukee or Cleveland, which offer money to any poor family. He believes an overwhelming desire remains among many poor families to send kids to private schools regardless of improving public school grades.

One thing for sure is that the debate won't die soon, as a lawsuit filed two years ago continues to challenge the constitutionality of vouchers.

But advocates praise the influence of the governor's effort.

"The threat of vouchers, the threat of competition, has forced the public education system to do a better job," said Slade O'Brien, director of the conservative Florida Citizens for a Sound Economy. "Is there grade inflation in these numbers? I don't know. But this is working. And I think real competition, not just the threat of it, would improve education even more.

"The current program did what it was designed to do," O'Brien said. "It was designed to kick the public school system in the butt." Staff writers Ben Feller and William March David Wasson contributed to this report.