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Catholic Education

Choice alters Florida education landscape


During his gubernatorial campaign, Jeb Bush declared himself the “education governor.” True to his word, under his tenure the educational landscape in Florida has changed.

At first glance, his A Plus Plan and School Choice Program seems nothing but good. Tuition vouchers for kids from failing schools, scholarships for disabled students, big business paying the way to private schools for kids from poor families and parents choosing the schools they want their children to attend. With only a 52 percent high school graduation rate, there is lots of room for improvement.

Following the lead of his younger brother, President George Bush modeled his “No Child Left Behind Act,” on Florida’s program, promising to erase the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

However, a chorus of protests suggests that all is not rosy in Florida’s education scene. In fact, state courts have declared parts of the school choice program unconstitutional.

In 1999, Florida became first to institute a statewide school voucher, or “Opportunity Scholarship” program. Immediately it provoked court challenges from a teachers’ union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other opponents. The Florida Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the program complies with a state constitutional provision for a system of free public schools. Other issues, including whether vouchers violate the principle of church-state separation, are pending at the appellate court level.

Until Bush changed the rules, Florida’s parents had little choice in where their kids went to school. A controlled open enrollment plan allows parents to enroll their children in any district public school that has room for them. Currently, 18 local school districts are implementing the plan, backed by significant tax money for transportation and administration. Parents may send their children to schools that perform better on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or to schools closer to child care or to parents’ workplaces.

Before signing the Bush/Brogan (Frank Brogan was lieutenant governor, at the time) A Plus Plan and School Choice Program into law, the only choice parents had was to buy a house in a particular school zone or send a child to a private school. The A Plus Plan gives parents of students in failing public schools tuition vouchers for private schools. The plan was built upon two principles: Each student should gain a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time in a public school; and no student will be left behind.

Reaction to an old story

Florida Catholic Conference Education Associate Larry Keough characterizes the choice program as a 21st-century reaction to a 19th-century congressional amendment never signed into law. The Blaine Amendment contained strong anti-Catholic sentiment and precluded federal aid to religious schools. At the time Catholic schools educated large numbers of immigrant children. States began writing Blaine-type language into their constitutions. Florida’s Choice Plan skirts the restrictions by allocating dollars to parents who then decide which schools their children will attend.

Parent Jill Rowan works in rural Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, one site of poorly performing public schools. She makes the daily 50-mile commute from Tallahassee to her job in the poverty-stricken county so her three children could have a better education. “I only moved here for the schools,” she said.

Another feature of the program, the Corporate Tax Scholarship program pays tuition to private schools for needy children, while giving a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction to businesses. Critics say the tax break, which the Florida Catholic Conference is asking the state legislature to increase, actually reduces the tax base in a state with severe budget shortfalls.

A Jan. 5 Palm Beach Post editorial asserts, “Florida is spending $50 million on an experimental education program that hasn’t been evaluated. Without any proof that the program works, advocates will be asking the state legislature to spend even more on it. The experimental voucher program at issue allows companies to donate as much as $5 million to a voucher fund and deduct the full amount from taxes owed to the state.”

Adding to Florida’s budget woes is a constitutional amendment reducing class sizes. Opposed by Bush, who in a meeting with a delegation of constituents, pro-mised a plan to derail it, Amendment Nine was nevertheless overwhelmingly passed by voters. Florida Catholic schools accreditation standards cap class size at 35 students. The new amendment lowers public school class size to 18 in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades four through eight and 25 in high school.

Accountability is the issue

The most visible part of Florida’s school choice plan is the tuition voucher program. Leon County Director of Planning and Policy James Croteau, a Catholic, says: “The issue is not accreditation, but accountability. There is no quality control in private schools, except for the parents’ option to take their child out.”

Florida public school and home-schooled students must take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which tests math and reading, and the entire school is graded on how students score.

Catholic school administrators counter with their use of national exams such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which “tests the progress in every subject in every grade,” according to Notre Dame Sr. Mary Caplice, school superintendent for the Pensacola/Tallahassee diocese.

Asked about progress of public school children who initially got Catholic schools vouchers in the westernmost part of the diocese, she said, “It amazed me. I checked their grades after their first year and they are consistently above grade. We must be doing something right.”

Only one of the 39 children has left the program, besting the 18 percent average in districts where vouchers are being used. Most return to their old schools because they miss friends and familiar places. Mandatory parental involvement in Catholic schools may be a factor in the success.

Cassandra Galloway’s son, Jonathan, attends Sacred Heart School in Pensacola, on a tuition voucher. She says she “jumped at the opportunity,” when she discovered her son was unable to read in the fourth grade, never had homework, yet was bringing home As and Bs on his report card.

“Jonathon used to hate school, now he loves it,” she said. Galloway said his teacher came to her home to tutor Jonathan privately, to help him catch up with the rest of the class. When Galloway expressed her fear of the program being cut due to falling state revenues, the teacher assured her, “We’ll find a way to keep him here.” Galloway is not Catholic and reports no difficulty or pressure on her son to participate in religious activities.

On the other hand, parent and former public school teacher John Occhiuzzo, a Catholic whose daughters attend Trinity School in Tallahassee, is vehement in his opposition to using tax money to send public school students to private schools.

“I pay my taxes too and I believe in Catholic schools. But taxpayers should not be paying private school tuition. And private does not always mean better,” he said.

Christian Br. Richard DeMaria, school superintendent for the Miami diocese, agrees that some tuition-paying parents may have problems with the voucher program. He added, “We’re forced to be accountable every day, knowing parents can pull their children out any time.”

Catholic schools are full

School administrators report most Catholic schools are at capacity. The Florida Catholic Conference, representing the state’s seven dioceses, is firmly behind the voucher program and supports the expansion of it, even while admitting most Catholic schools have little room for additional students. However, a proposal made Jan. 6 by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development would extend the scope of President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative to allow building, buying or rehabilitating buildings used for religious activities, so long as sections of them are used for non-religious purposes, like education.

Keough said, “The one thing that will destroy school choice is if private schools say they have no vacancies.” Currently there are more than 95,000 students in Florida’s 233 Catholic schools. “Entre-preneurial” private schools have sprung up where Catholic schools are full, Croteau adds. Although his North Florida school district has higher than state average of students enrolled in private schools, the trend is statewide.

Florida private schools must only demonstrate fiscal soundness by being in operation for one school year and meet state and local health and safety laws and codes to be eligible to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. They must also, by state statute, “determine on a random and religious-neutral basis … which opportunity scholarships to accept.”

As in most Florida public schools, Catholic schools are facing teacher shortages. One oft-repeated argument against the voucher program is teacher certification. Public school educators must be certified by the Florida Department of Education, requiring additional and continuing education.

Florida statutes specify only that teachers in private schools must “hold a baccalaureate or higher degree, or have at least three years of teaching experience in public or private schools, or have special skills, knowledge or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught.”

Speaking the faith

DeMaria said that all elementary and high school teachers in his diocesan schools are required to be state certified. Traditionally, parochial school teachers earn significantly less than in public schools. The answer to why teachers would choose Catholic schools over public schools lies in the statement, “They want to teach where they can speak their faith and be supported by it,” said Caplice.

DeMaria adds, “There is discipline in Catholic schools. For the teachers it’s a real vocation, a commitment and a feeling that ‘I’m getting something done.’ ”

Some of Jeb Bush’s strategies to mandate class size reduction and reduce teacher shortages are streamlining certification and expanding the voucher program. Keough said he hopes part of the plan is extension of the “student loan forgiveness” policy public school teachers have, making teaching at Catholic schools attractive.

State Rep. Beverly Kilmer said, “We’re going to get sued no matter what we do,” citing proposed voucher and charter school expansions. “I think the governor has set out some clear goals, and he’s going down the road we need to follow.”

Another component of the school choice program is the John McKay Scholarship, which pays tuition to private schools for mentally and physically disabled students. The McKay Scholarship has led to a mushrooming of private schools for the disabled.

Public schools are federally mandated to provide assistance to disabled students as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“They don’t have to prove their ability to educate,” Croteau said of the nonpublic schools. Approximately 10,000 disabled students are in Florida private and Catholic schools.

Most students attending private schools and students with disabilities who access the McKay scholarships, are not required to pass the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test to receive a standard diploma. Nor are private schools required to provide any special assistance to the disabled student. DeMaria says his schools are “good at working with children with learning disabilities,” and do the best they can for physically disabled students.

Florida School Choice Program Director J. Bowman, is almost a cheerleader for the A Plus Plan. “The program raised the standards and most schools have risen to the challenge,” he said. “It’s morally wrong to compel a child to go to a failing school. The A Plus Plan equals accountability and lasting systemic changes.”

Charter schools proliferate

Charter schools, part of the public school system, but operating with flexible programming, have proliferated under the school choice plan. Currently 223 charter schools operate in the state with another 117 waiting for approval. Pembroke Pines, near Fort Lauderdale, has carved out its own Charter School District, separate from the rest of their public school system.

Croteau says Florida has led the nation in the creation and management of charter schools. At the same time, another 44,000 children are being home-schooled.

Bowman scoffs at the idea only middle-class white parents take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarships to move their kids out of less desireable schools. “Ninety-six percent are minority children,” he said. He reports more than 13,000 students with disabilities are on waiting lists for McKay Scholarships, despite the number of private schools opening, sometimes with only five or six students, and run by parents.

With parents insisting on better education, the Florida Catholic Conference sees an advantage in promoting its agenda for more government dollars flowing into the state’s Catholic schools through all parts of the choice program. A pastoral letter signed by the state’s bishops supports universal pre-kindergarten education and the expansion of the Choice program. They write, “For every child educated in a Catholic school, the state realizes a minimal savings of $6,000 annually.”

Those figures are dubious to Occhiuzzo who says he believes the voucher program siphons taxpayer money out of the public school system.

Croteau supports the part of the program that allows parents to move their children around in public schools, but adds, “The concern of public schools for open vouchers is that if any student can go to any school it will be like the camel’s nose under the tent,” when it comes to moving tax money away from an already financially stressed public school system.

Florida’s constitution guarantees a quality education to all. Keough says, “Keep in mind it’s about children, not defending a system. It’s the parent’s money, not the government’s.”

Judy Gross is a free-lance writer who lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

Related Web sites

Florida Catholic Conference Education Issues

Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test

Florida Department of Education

Florida School Choice Scholarships

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003