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First School Voucher Program Begins

August 17, 1999

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ Parents and nuns beamed as the nation’s first statewide school voucher program took effect, but opponents derided its debut as a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

``One child getting a better education makes our world a little bit better,″ said Sister Robert Ann, principal of St. Michael Interparochial School, where 20 of the state’s 58 voucher students began classes on Monday. ``And if they have a little bit of religion, all the better.″

The program, launched Monday at four Roman Catholic schools and a private school, allows students in Florida’s worst public schools to receive vouchers of up to $3,389 a year to pay for a private or parochial school education at taxpayer expense.

Under a law championed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, only children in schools deemed failures by the state are eligible. So far, student test scores have labeled only two schools, both in Pensacola, as failing. Florida has 2 million public school students.

``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 has begun classes at Montessori Early School.

But while voucher supporters declared Monday a historic day, opponents of what Bush 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.

Under the program, voucher funds are taken from public education. 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.

Smaller voucher programs are in effect in other cities, including Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Voucher students must attend religion classes and Mass with their classmates regardless of their religion, said Sister Mary Caplice, superintendent of Pensacola’s Catholic schools.

Although she is a Methodist, Mary 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.

At St. Michael, boys in dark slacks and girls in plaid skirts gathered on Monday morning for the daily flag-raising and prayer to the school’s patron saint, the voucher students indistinguishable from other classmates.

Teachers have not been told which students are on vouchers, said St. Michael’s principal, Sister Robert Ann.

``They’re more interested in saying, ’Here’s my new children, what can I do to help them read and write and spell and do everything well?‴ she said.

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