Florida Votes for School Vouchers. Who's Next?

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The nation's public schools, which these days stress cooperation over competition among their students, will take a giant step closer to the open marketplace this week when Florida's legislature approves the country's first statewide voucher system. It's an idea that in one form or another may be coming to states such as Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania -- and proponents are waiting to see if it will stand up to federal scrutiny. "State courts have upheld the idea of using vouchers in parochial schools," notes TIME's Adam Cohen, "but when it gets to the Supreme Court it may be a whole other ball of wax." Under the Florida plan, schools would get grades based on composite standardized test scores, and the state would give vouchers worth up to $4,000 to enable students at the F schools to go elsewhere. The arguments are fairly clearly drawn: Those in favor, who tend to be Republicans, say the system would introduce competition that will force inefficient schools to improve or close down; opponents say it means taxpayers will now be funding religious schools. For their part, teachers' unions are against anything that would dilute their power (nongovernment schools tend to be less unionized and staffed with more noncertified teachers).

But how well do these programs actually work? Cohen, who recently looked at the voucher program that's been in place for three years in Cleveland, says it's a very mixed schoolbag: "There's not a lot of evidence yet to show that it has a positive effect on schools," he says. In Cleveland, the test scores of students who used the vouchers show a slight improvement in some subjects and a decline in others. Classes are smaller than in public schools, which is considered good, but teachers are generally less qualified. But the biggest fear is that vouchers could balkanize cities and states. "Public schools used to be the great melting pot," Cohen notes, "and that's being lost." Especially in the cultural melange that is Florida, that's something worth remembering.