Fla. vouchers: opportunity vs. headache; Education: As the first statewide school voucher program faces a court challenge, debate over such plans continues.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Brenda McShane and her daughter prayed for a voucher. They got one, and now they're praying just as fervently that the courts won't take it away.

Brenisha McShane, 6, is one of 57 Florida pupils attending private and parochial schools in this Gulf Coast city -- initiating the nation's first statewide school voucher plan.

The plan -- giving parents at two failing Pensacola public schools a choice among four Roman Catholic schools, a private Montessori school and other public schools -- has been in effect for more than five weeks. Brenisha is learning a few words of Spanish and rudimentary sign language at the Montessori Early School.

Other voucher kids are saying daily prayers at nearby Sacred Heart Catholic School, their tuitions of about $3,400 paid by Florida taxpayers.

The Sunshine State's plunge into vouchers, meanwhile, is reverberating far beyond this Panhandle school district of 46,000 students. It comes amid a raft of similar proposals. Among them:

George W. Bush, brother of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and front-runner in the Republican race for president, recommended last month that parents in badly failing schools be given federal money to spend on "alternative" forms of education.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York would tie his voucher plan, as does Florida's, to school performance.

In Baltimore, David F. Tufaro, the Republican candidate for mayor, has proposed a voucher plan for parents in failing city schools who cannot afford private-school tuition. His opponent, Democrat Martin O'Malley, says the money would be better spent improving public schools.

Privately financed voucher plans, many supported by philanthropists such as John Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune, have spread to 67 communities, including Baltimore, with at least $250 million committed nationally.

But Florida's day in the sun may be short-lived. Only a few days after the opening of school here, a federal judge in Ohio blocked and then reinstated a limited voucher plan in Cleveland because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. However, in Milwaukee, a voucher plan has survived a decade of court challenges, and the state Supreme Court a year ago allowed its expansion to church schools.

Lawyers for People for the American Way, one of several liberal groups mounting a constitutional challenge in Florida courts, expect the state's plan to be rejected. But Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice, believes the plan will pass legal muster, in part because it "adds a new moral element" -- the aim of improving failing schools.

As for the church-state issue, Heffernan says: "Every government service besides education is provided in some form or another to church-related institutions. Why not education?"

Bush, who pushed the plan through the Florida Legislature in June, crafted the measure to avoid church entanglement. Florida's vouchers are called "opportunity scholarships." State voucher checks are made out to parents and then signed over to the schools. And students can use them to attend other public schools -- 80 other Pensacola pupils did so this fall -- or nonsectarian private schools.

School accountability

But the primary distinction of Florida's "A+ Plan for Education," say its authors, is its direct link to school accountability.

Parents in public schools given an "F" two years out of four on state tests in reading, writing and mathematics are eligible for vouchers worth as much as $4,000. They hold the vouchers as long as their children are in school, even if the school from which they departed gets better grades.

Maryland also holds failing schools accountable, warning them of possible state takeover and helping them come up with reform plans. But Maryland doesn't help students move away from failing schools.

Only two Florida schools -- both in low-income Pensacola neighborhoods -- made the state's failing list this year. But 78 schools across Florida -- including seven others in Pensacola -- have been warned by the state that their students might be given vouchers next year. This has set off efforts to find ways to avoid the ignominy of the "F-list."

Pensacola officials say they were able to accommodate the first wave of voucher recipients but will have trouble if more public schools are placed on the failing list and no more private schools volunteer to participate. A lottery pared down the 92 families that signed up for private-school placement, and most of the 35 that did not get slots opted for higher-performing public schools.

The problem could be even more severe in Miami and other low-income urban and rural districts where poverty and poor performance often go hand in hand. Twenty-six schools in Miami got their first "F" last school year.

Mixed reviews

Pensacola's school superintendent, Jim May, calls the state plan "unfair, a toothache, a migraine, a broken arm and something I resent as a taxpayer. But I've got to admit it's gotten everyone's attention, and there's lots of improvement efforts going on."

May says he supports the idea of school choice. But to counter the state voucher program, he has proposed a choice plan for his school district that would include only public schools. The Pensacola school board appointed a 70-member task force late last month to consider it.

Meanwhile, Florida's plan provides some carrots along with sticks. High-performing schools get incentives of as much as $100 per student, and Florida has increased state aid to failing schools. For example, the state kicked in $300,000 to extend the school year at the first two schools eligible for vouchers, Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy and A. A. Dixon Elementary, from 180 days to 210.

Vouchers draw mixed reviews. Parents and educators at Bibbs and Dixon believe they were unfairly targeted by a politically motivated governor.

"Nobody came to our school to see what we were doing before vouchers," says Linda Scott, Bibbs' principal. "Nobody came to Escambia County to see if we were addressing the problems. So who's to say my school is doing a worse job than the schools I'm sending students to? Mine is not a school full of failed students."

Scott and Judith Ladner, the principal of nearby Dixon, both point to improvements at their schools, some of which predate vouchers: crisp new uniforms, a flood of volunteers, banks of computers, telephone systems that put any in Baltimore schools to shame, an extended school year, and additional teachers for reading and writing.

The two schools, less than two miles apart, are clean, colorful and well-lighted, oases in rundown neighborhoods north of downtown. Their pupils are among the poorest in Florida, nearly all qualifying for free lunches. Many children at Dixon live in an adjacent housing project.

"We could have gotten off the list if we'd cheated, as other schools did," says Bibbs' PTA president, John Rigsby. The 28-year-old law student flashes anger at the mention of Bush and his voucher plan. When the governor and his entourage swept through Pensacola before opening day, Rigsby refused to shake Bush's hand and turned his back.

"What he has managed to do," Rigsby says bitterly, "is make us the most unified school in the county, perhaps in all of Florida."

Five weeks into the school year, parents who received vouchers say they're getting what they sought: the chance for a better education and, in the case of those who won vouchers to attend Catholic schools, a dose of religion in their children's schooling.

McShane, a 42-year-old Head Start worker, says Pensacola's schools failed her three older children, and she jumped at the chance for a voucher.

"My children kept falling through the cracks," she says, "and when I would ask [administrators] why, all I would hear is, 'Things are going to be OK.' That's not enough.

"I want people to understand that I'm not trying to rip them off. I think all the schools should be of high quality."

McShane says her daughter has learned respect and good manners at her new school, the private Montessori center. Indeed, when a teacher there pulls Brenisha away from a conversation with a visitor, the child politely says, "Please excuse me, I'll be back in a moment."

Notable differences

Mary E. Smith, 42, uses vouchers to send her niece, Angela Atwood, 10, and nephew, Antonio Hale, 6, to St. John the Evangelist School.

"I don't have anything against Dixon," says Smith, "except that my own kids from the beginning of their lives in school had too many in a class and too many with behavior problems.

"It's hard to keep lessons up to par with 30 or 32 kids coming at you." At St. John, they have about 25 students in their classes.

Snapping her fingers in her neat living room overlooking a cemetery, Smith says things are going well at the new school. "I can see a difference already. It's starting to click."

As for potential conflict in spending public money on private enterprises, Smith says she reads the papers. "Forty-two million for Clinton's [diplomatic] trip to Africa? They spend state and federal money on everything else that's not doing us any good. Why not spend it on our kids?"

An irony of the plan, says Sister Mary Caplice, the Catholic schools superintendent in Pensacola, is that she can find no Catholics among the 53 voucher students in her schools. Under the law, no child is compelled to participate in prayer or other religious exercises, but Caplice says no family has complained about them.

Dermita Merkman sits in a booth at a Shoney's restaurant in a Pensacola shopping strip, feeding her daughter, Aylana, 2 1/2. Five-year-old Jessica, one of 28 voucher recipients in their first year of school, crawls under the table.

Merkman, 26, was enthusiastic about vouchers from the first day.

"I volunteered to help the cause as soon as I heard about it," says Merkman, a Baptist. "I saw it as the opportunity for Jessica to get a good education combined with learning about Christ. A Catholic school just reinforces the things I try to teach at home."

Merkman says she's "painfully aware" that some look on the voucher users as opportunists robbing the public schools. "They think we sit around all day smoking and drinking. Well, I don't smoke, and I don't drink."

An anxious wait

Virtually everyone concerned with vouchers in Pensacola is waiting anxiously for a judicial ruling. A decision could come this fall. And if it goes against vouchers, the plan might have to be dismantled immediately.

That would please May, the superintendent, who says: "I'm tired of getting beat up."

Hal Mason, Pensacola's Republican school board chairman, disagrees: "Schools all over Florida can feel the hot breath of next year's scores breathing down their necks. I don't think a little competition is bad at all."

Caplice says the matter is in the hands of God -- not to mention the lawyers. Voucher opponents "feel threatened," she says, "and I don't like to be part of a threat. But if it helps the children, it's worth it."

And McShane, dressed in her Sunday finest and sitting in the cramped office of the Head Start center where she has worked for 22 years, says she's still praying every morning and every night that the voucher program will be saved.

"It was prayer that got us into vouchers," she says, "and if the courts don't understand, it will be prayer that will get us out."

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