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First School Voucher Program Begins

August 16, 1999

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ The nation’s first statewide school voucher program began Monday with 58 youngsters starting classes at four Roman Catholic schools and a private school at taxpayer expense.

``I’ve had other children attend the public school system and right now, academically, they’re having some really hard times,″ said Brenda McShane, whose 6-year-old daughter Brenisha started at Montessori Early School.

Under a law championed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, students in Florida’s worst public schools can get vouchers of up to $3,389 a year to pay for a private or parochial school education.

Only children in schools deemed failures by the state are eligible. So far, only two schools, both in Pensacola, have gotten a failing grade, based on student test scores. Florida has 2 million public school students.

While voucher supporters declared Monday a historic day, opponents of what the governor calls ``opportunity scholarships″ contend the program violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Lawsuits challenging the program have been filed by the NAACP, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, teachers unions and others.

Smaller voucher programs are in effect around the country in such places as Milwaukee and Cleveland.

``Why should we trap kids in schools that aren’t working?″ Bush asked during a visit to the two failing Pensacola schools Friday. He said the wealthy often choose to send their children to private schools, and added, ``What about people in poverty?″

The money for the vouchers is taken out of public eduation. Parents who participate do not have to pay the difference between the voucher amount and the tuition the private schools charge. Private schools that charge more must absorb the costs.

Only five private schools have agreed to take voucher students. Some administrators are afraid of lowering academic standards, and others want to see how the program works the first year.

Although she is a Methodist, Mary E. Smith decided to enroll her children, first-grader Antonio Held, 7, and fifth-grader Angela Atwood, 10, at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School.

``I believe if they put prayer back in school that they’ll see a change,″ she said.

Sister Mary Caplice, superintendent of Catholic schools in Pensacola, said non-Catholic children, whether on vouchers or paying tuition, must attend religion classes and Mass with the rest of the students.

``We’ve explained all of that to the parents,″ she said.

Some tuition-paying parents had misgivings about the voucher children, but Sister Mary said she believes those were put to rest during a series of meetings at the schools. Parents were assured that class size would not increase and all children would be treated the same.

``We have a long history of receiving children from other schools and helping them to be assimilated,″ she said. ``We see these children as coming in that same tradition.″

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