Americans United, Allies Urge Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush To Drop Push For Vouchers

Infuriated over a state supreme court ruling striking down private school vouchers, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has vowed to use the rest of his term to find a way to re-establish the program in the state.

Americans United and its allies in the education and civil liberties communities are urging Bush to drop the idea and give up on vouchers. There are better ways, the groups say, to improve education in the state.

Florida’s Supreme Court ruled in January that the state does not have the authority to establish a voucher plan. The scheme, the court said in a 5-2 decision, violates a section of the Florida Consti­tution requiring a uniform system of free public schools.

Bush has urged lawmakers to re-establish the program but this time pay for it with money gleaned from corporate tax credits. A Florida House of Repre­sentatives Committee approved the plan on a party-line vote 15-5 March 10.

A coalition of state and national organizations wants Bush to drop the voucher approach and place his emphasis on strengthening public schools.

“We share your concern that many parents in low-income areas in the state want the very best for their children,” read the letter. “They want exactly what every other citizen of Florida wants. They want their children to learn in a ‘uni­form, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.’ Let’s work together to make this constitutional provision a reality for everyone instead of offering an alternative to a few through a voucher system that our courts have found unconstitutional.

“Just look,” the letter continued, “at what the private schools that compete for voucher money use in their marketing pitches: They tout smaller class sizes and individual attention. But they offer this to only a small slice of parents and students in Florida. It’s only through our public schools that we can make this a reality for all.”

Signers include Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida; Florida Education Association; Amer­ican Association of University Women of Florida; American Jewish Con­gress, South East Region; the Anti-Defamation League, Florida Region; Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers; Florida State Conference NAACP; Gray Panthers of North-Dade; Gray Panthers of South-Dade; the League of Women Voters; the National Council of Jewish Women FL State Public Affairs and People For the American Way.

In other news about vouchers:

• President George W. Bush has unveiled a $100-million private school voucher plan aimed at students in public schools deemed to be “restructuring” under the guidelines of the No Child Left Behind education law.

The plan, inserted into Bush’s 2007 budget, would allocate money to the states, which could then allocate vouchers worth $4,000 toward tuition at any private school.

Bush and Education Secretary Marga­ret Spellings have not promoted the idea since it was introduced, leading to speculation that the scheme will not seriously be pushed in Congress.

• A new study of participants in Cleve­land’s voucher program found no academic gains over public school students. Clive R. Belfield, associate director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Colum­bia University, said he re-analyzed data from 2000 and 2002 and found no gains for the voucher students on tests, reported Education Week. In fact, they did worse in mathematics.

“Basically, this asks: Each year, how much faster do voucher students’ scores grow, relative to other children’s scores?” Belfield said. “The answer: No faster, perhaps even slower.”

• New Hampshire’s House of Rep­re­sentatives has voted down two versions of a voucher bill, apparently killing the idea for this year. HB 1707 would have given parents with up to $60,000 in annual income a voucher of $2,800 to be spent at any private school in the state. The plan would have started with 2,000 students and increased to 16,000 after eight years, reported the Manchester Union-Leader.

An amended version of the bill that would have barred the use of tax money for religious instruction was also introduced but rejected as well.

Americans United worked with its allies in the religious and educational com­munities to oppose the voucher plan. One more voucher bill was pending in the state legislature as Church & State went to press.

• A wealthy Texas doctor and fundamentalist Christian activist, James Leininger, is so determined to see vouchers in the state that he using a political action committee to pour millions into the coffers of pro-voucher legislative candidates.

Using public documents, the Texas Freedom Network determined that Leininger donated more than $1.8 million to the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, $495,000 to the Future of Texas Alliance and $13,000 to the Texas Club for Growth. The total comes to $2,315,443.25.

Leininger is funding the political action committee to finance Republican primary opponents challenging five GOP members of the Texas House who op­posed vouchers last year.

“These gigantic donations are breathtaking,” Texas Freedom Network’s Kathy Miller said in a press release. “In Jim Leininger’s gamble to buy the legislature, he just went all in. And if he wins, private schools will take the pot and public schools will foot the bill.”

Texas Freedom Network (TFN) accuses the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee of breaking state election laws and asked the Texas Ethics Commission to investigate. According to TFN, the political action committee has been making campaign donations even though it has not collected contributions from at least 10 people, as required by state law.