Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bell Rings for Voucher Programs

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bell Rings for Voucher Programs

Article excerpt

PENSACOLA -- Mary E. Smith's two youngest children will be studying -- and praying -- at taxpayer expense today when St. John the Evangelist Catholic School opens its doors for a new term.

They will be among 58 children expected to participate as the nation's first statewide tuition voucher program begins. All of the voucher students have transferred from two public elementary schools in Pensacola, both labeled as failures by the state.

Prayer is the main reason Smith wanted her children, first-grader Antonio Held, 7, and fifth-grader Angela Atwood, 10, out of public school.

"Thank God for it," she said. "I believe if they put prayer back in school that they'll see a change."

Religion, however, also is a key issue in a court challenge to the voucher program by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, teachers unions and other opponents. They contend it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The suits were filed in Tallahassee where the Legislature earlier this year passed Gov. Jeb Bush's "A-Plus" education reform package that includes the vouchers he calls "opportunity scholarships."

Vouchers are provided only to children in schools that fail to meet a minimum standard on statewide achievement tests for two years in a four-year period. This year, only two schools fall into that category: A.A. Dixon Elementary and Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy, a technology-based magnet school.

Bush reiterated his support for vouchers during a visit to the two Pensacola schools Friday.

"Why should we trap kids in schools that aren't working?" Bush asked. "The ones that choose the private options, they've made that choice and I believe that they should be given that right. People that have high incomes make that choice all the time. What about people in poverty?"

Only five private schools -- four Roman Catholic and the Montessori Early School -- have agreed to take voucher students. …

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