From Southern Illinoisan, Saturday, May 1, 1999, p.5A
Florida school voucher plan goes to governor
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Legislature gave final approval Friday to the establishment of the nation's only statewide program to allow students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.
All students in the worst public schools, regardless of their income or their grades, will be eligible for vouchers ranging from $3,000 to 25,000 a year to help pay for private or parochial school tuition.
The voucher program passed the Senate 25-15 on the last day of the legislative session Friday. The House approved it 70-48 two days earlier.
Gov. Jeb Bush made the program a centerpiece of his campaign and one of his top priorities.
"This is an effort to improve public schools but it's also a recognition that when there's chronic failure it's just morally right to provide parents other options," Bush said.
Opponents of the measure have threatened to sue, warning it will destroy public education and violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Florida has 2 million public school students.
Under the legislation, schools will be graded A, B, C, D or F, based on student performance. Students in schools that get a failing grade will be entitled to go to private school. The tax money would be taken out of public education.
A child of special needs could receive up to $25,000. Scores in only four of Florida's 3,000 public schools are now so bad they would qualify. But with tougher standards approved late last year, the number of flunking schools could climb to 170.
Milwaukee and Cleveland have started voucher programs in recent years. Vermont has allowed tax dollars to be spent for private school tuition in rural areas for more than a century. Maine has a similar program to Vermont's.
In Florida, the issue dominated the two-month legislative session, with supporters saying it will give schools an incentive to improve and will help children get a better education.
Republican Sen. John McKay said the law will "allow students to escape from failing schools."
Opponents argued public schools will be abandoned and drained of money they can ill-afford to lose. Critics also warned about the use of vouchers to pay for parochial school tuition.
Rep. Steve Geller said: "What I believe is this is the beginning of the end for public education."
"We're not going to let that happen," said Leon Russell, president of the Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP. Other opponents include the Florida PTA, the state's two teacher unions and the American Civil Liberties Union.
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