The End of Vouchers or Another Round of the Debate?

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The issue of school vouchers — the most contentious in American public education over the past decade — is poised to come to a head. On Tuesday a Florida circuit court judge ruled that the state's nascent voucher program violates the state constitution. But this isn't the last we've heard of the Florida voucher program, the most ambitious in the nation. The arguments against the program — that it violates the separation of church and state and leaves the neediest kids stranded in underperforming schools — are being hotly debated across the country, and voucher proponents are already lining up national experts for their appeal. But the real star power in the case comes from the program's chief booster, Florida governor Jeb Bush. What's more, vouchers are one of the most controversial portions of big brother George W.'s presidential platform — and are vehemently opposed by Al Gore. Dubya likes to cite Jeb's program as a model for his campaign promise of promoting "school accountability."

Florida is the only state to make vouchers available to parents in all underperforming schools. In this system, if a school averages subpar grades on state standardized tests in consecutive years, parents are offered $3,389 vouchers that can be used for private, parochial or other public schools. Despite signs that it's been somewhat successful (a mostly flattering story about the program ran on the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday), Judge Ralph Smith Jr. ruled in favor of voucher opponents, reasoning that it illegally funnels public funding into private schools. Both sides of the lawsuit have already speculated that the appeals will go the Florida Supreme Court or beyond. Considering the national spotlight, due in large part to the famous last name of the program's architect, we can expect the battle to intensify as pro- and anti-voucher forces focus on the case and its discussion in the presidential debates.