Bush to find reviving vouchers difficult

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Gov. Jeb Bush is already facing a tough fight to resurrect his now unconstitutional voucher plan, with moderate Republican senators positioned to thwart efforts to override the Florida Supreme Court.
The court earlier this month ruled unconstitutional the Opportunity Scholarship Program that uses taxpayers' money to send 733 students to private schools. The court's 5-2 ruling said the scholarships unconstitutionally took money away from public schools for use in private schools that have different guidelines.
Even before that decision, Bush and other Republicans were devising a way to overcome such a ruling. The OSP is the nation's first statewide voucher plan and Bush has called it the centerpiece of his myriad education reforms because it forces failing schools to improve or lose their students. House Republicans have focused on the following plan: Find a way to move the 733 affected children to another voucher plan that provides corporate tax breaks for businesses that provide private school tuition. And then ask voters to change the constitution in November's election to make the OSP legal again.
But there's a catch. Repeatedly during his seven years in office, Gov. Jeb Bush has found some of his most sweeping proposals welcomed in the House only to be dismissed by Republicans in the Senate.
With one year left until he leaves office, Bush may revisit that scenario when lawmakers begin their 60-day session in early March.
It takes a three-fifths majority in the House and Senate to put a proposed change to the state constitution on the ballot. While the GOP margin in the House, 85-35, will likely meet such a majority, the Republicans have a 26-14 margin in the Senate and need 24 votes to approve a proposed constitutional amendment.
That may not happen. Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said last week that "it's going to be tough" to get 24 senators on board.
"I know a couple who said they're going to vote against it," King said of his fellow Republicans. The former Senate president hedged on his own vote, but said he was reluctant to revive the program without stricter state oversight.
And King added, "I'm not so sure the general public is going to want to rush in and thwart what a Supreme Court decision said."
Another Republican senator was more resolute in his distaste for vouchers.
"Hopefully, they're history," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island.
Jones called the vouchers a "failure" and dislikes the draining of money from public schools for use in private schools where there aren't requirements such as taking the FCAT annually.
"Until we can get our teachers in the upper quartile of the nation in pay, until we can begin meeting this influx of new students, I'm not for any more of these education experiments," Jones said.
Jones agreed with King that there were likely to be other Republican senators who would vote against a voucher amendment.
One Republican senator on the fence, Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, said she would reluctantly support taking the issue to the voters.
"My theme for a while has been, 'Let's stop messing with the constitution,' " she said. But she's concerned that future court rulings with the current constitution could affect other programs that give taxpayer money to private institutions, including the very popular Bright Futures scholarship program that gives Florida students an option to use state money at private colleges.
"I don't know that the public realizes how many other vouchers there are," she said. "Ultimately, probably it's a good idea to put it back to the people."
Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee, said it's too early to start counting votes in the Senate.
"We know that we're continuing to support the governor's position, as we most often are," he said. "It's really going to be the governor's responsibility to rally the Senate."
Pickens said House leadership could choose to issue an ultimatum to the Senate by making passage of a constitutional amendment necessary for other important legislation to pass.
"That may make the Senate take a different viewpoint," he said, adding that such a decision is still theoretical.
Like Bush, Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has seen Republicans block legislation before by joining Democrats. He noted, however, that Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, will be pushing for the constitutional amendment. Pruitt will replace Lee in November and will have the power to assign committees as well as many other perks for his two-year stint at the top.
"It'll be a tight vote," Lee predicted, adding he'd support the constitutional amendment.
Senate Democratic leader Les Miller, D-Tampa, said the 14 Democrats are firm in their opposition to resurrecting the vouchers. And he said pressure from Pruitt isn't likely to move moderate Republicans who have frustrated Bush-favored efforts like intervening in the Terri Schiavo case.
"They stand their ground," Miller said of the GOP bloc. "They've bucked their leadership before and they don't mind doing it again."

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