- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Worried Florida parents gathered at a state courthouse last week, fearful that a Tallahassee judge might block the use of vouchers to get their children out of failing Florida schools. In March, Judge L. Ralph Smith had declared unconstitutional a law allowing a relatively small number of students to use state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. The question last week was whether Judge Smith would halt the program, pending an appeal of his decision. To the relief of the Florida parents, he did not.
"I was thinking 'Thank God, we've got a little more time,' " Cynthia Dale said.
For Mrs. Dale, the decision to use vouchers to take her daughter Cecilia out of a Pensacola-area school was not a hard one. Cecilia wasn't challenged there. School officials taught her the same curriculum two years in a row. There was little discipline, and Cecilia rarely came home with books or homework.
But to the National Education Association (NEA), other teachers unions and civil rights groups working to stop the program, parents like Mrs. Dale are a threat to the public school system. "Instead of taking money out of schools that need them, and putting them in the pockets of parents, the state should take the money and reinvest it in the public schools and improve the public schools, so that every child, not just the select few, will have a chance to have an excellent public education," Michael Simpson, an attorney working for the NEA said in an interview.
Actually improved public schools is exactly what Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hoped vouchers would generate as part of his "A+ Plan for Education." Rather than funneling money out of the public schools, Mr. Bush's program has provided an additional $1.5 billion to districts for school improvement in 1999 and 2000. It provides millions more for the very worst performing schools in the state. And instead of limiting the program to a "select few,'' up to 60,000 students could be eligible for the voucher program after the state releases its latest list of failing schools in June.
The plan works as follows: The state grades the schools' performance over a period of four years. If the schools receive the dreaded "F" for two years during that time, their students are given the option of leaving that school for another public or private one, bringing their allotment of state money with them. In effect, the schools must compete to serve school students, and the program is generating results, according to a new Institute for Justice report entitled "Competing to Win: How Florida's A+ Plan Has Triggered Public School Reform." Bad grades are forcing schools to start new reading, math and language arts programs.
In Escambia County, the only county which currently has students using the vouchers, the loss of students prompted school district officials to offer an extended 210-day school year as well as expanded blocks of time for reading, writing and math. In Lake County, its only "F" school has reduced its student to teacher ratio to 15-to-1. All Florida schools which have received "D" or "F" grades have started new training programs for teachers in technology and instruction methods. The list goes on.
Although the program has made winners of students and their parents, the A+ plan itself may wind up a loser. Judge Smith's ruling has been appealed to Florida's First District Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the program before September. If the voucher program is ruled unconstitutional, it is the teachers unions and other voucher foes who would be telling children like Cecilia, whose parents are unable to afford any private schooling, that only the rich should be able to choose the education they think is best for their children. It is voucher foes who would be blocking school reforms now revitalizing the state's education system.
Mr. Bush has offered Florida children like Cecilia an unparalleled opportunity for education reform. Teachers unions should not take it from them.

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