Aid or intrusion?

Officials are wary of terms in proposals

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 1:24 a.m.
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Oak Hall lower school 3rd grade student Kelsey Oliver reads with her class Tuesday afternoon.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Two state lawmakers have proposed that the state pay for shifting students to private schools if school districts don't have enough money to pay for class-size reductions, as required by a constitutional amendment passed in November.
And Alachua County could be one of those school districts, since under a budget proposed Tuesday by Gov. Jeb Bush, Alachua County could come up $2.6 million short in trying to reduce class sizes.
But some private school officials are not happy with the amount the state would pay them and others say that would put students in private schools for the wrong reasons and could allow state intrusion into the way private schools operate.
In Florida, a school district gets roughly $5,000 a year to educate each student. Rep. Stan Jordan, R-Jacksonville, would allow private schools to receive up to 60 percent of that money for a student who comes from overcrowded public schools.
The remaining 40 percent of the money would remain with the state.
"This gives the districts a tool to deal with that issue," said Jordan, who spent 37 years as a teacher, administrator and 16-year Duval County School Board member. "This is not a recruiting tool for vouchers, but a relief valve for districts. What they'll do at the beginning of the year would be like airlines do: 'Would anyone like to be bumped voluntarily because we're overfilled?' "
Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, has a similar proposal that would shift half the $5,000 to private schools, but would leave the remainder with the school districts in a trust fund.
"We're going to pay school boards not to educate children and they're going to be able to use those (remaining) dollars," Needelman said.
While Bush and legislators must iron out the rules and definitions regarding the class-size amendment, Bush predicted that officials will have to spend $6.6 million next year to fulfill the amendment in Alachua County. But according to the governor's spending proposal, the total additional dollars for the district would be $4 million.
"We're talking about total additional funding, so we're already $2.6 million behind before we even talk about raises or expanding programs," said Alachua County School Board member Wes Eubank. "The problem is that the amendment said the state will fund the amendment and they didn't fund it."
School Board member Ginger Childs, who was in Tallahassee with Eubank and board member Tina Turner to attend a conference of the Florida School Boards Association, was more direct.
"I know there's a pony up here because there's piles all around," Childs said.
Some private school officials say they are not interested in having only 60 percent of their tuition funded.
"I know with vouchers, we've kind of shied away from that because the amount is not as much as tuition would be," said Christina Miller, owner and principal of Millhopper Montessori School, which enrolls about 230 students at a cost of about $5,000 a year per student.
Some private school officials said they would rather see students enroll in private schools for the right reasons.
"There will be an easing of the rules and regulations of how kids can attend private school, especially when using state money because they have to look for space," said Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, which accredits 157 private schools in the state. "The more appropriate question is: 'Is this a good thing for parents and are they going to be able to access it?' Finding a school that best fits the need for the child is the right reason to choose a private school, not because of a constitutional amendment."
In Alachua County, about 30,000 students attend public school, while about 3,345 attend 30 private schools.
Sending students to private school does not guarantee they will be in smaller classes, either, some say.
"I could tell you right now St. Patrick's is at its enrollment this year," said Elaine Baumgartner, principal at St. Patrick Interparish Catholic School, where 570 students attend pre-K through the eighth grade. "We have some of our classes at over 30, which we don't like to do. Chances are we won't fit too many in here."
Other private school officials said voucher proposals could translate into state intrusion. Private schools do not have to abide by the constitutional amendment or other rules that pertain to public schools.
"Oak Hall in Gainesville would not participate in this kind of program mostly because we want to preserve our independence and we're concerned we would in fact become part of the state system once we start accepting state money," said Richard Gehman, headmaster at Oak Hall School on Tower Road, which enrolls 750 students in pre-K through 12th grade. "The whole state education business is in flux right now and I would like to see it settle down before we make any decision like this. I'm not quite certain how private schools will fit into (the changes)."
Cathi Carr can be reached at 374-5086 or carrc@gvillesun. com.

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