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Call to boost voucher scheme

Florida's Jeb Bush plans dramatic expansion of initiative, despite a pending Supreme Court ruling that could see it outlawed. Stephen Phillips reports

Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, has called for an eight-fold expansion of the only state-wide private school vouchers scheme in the US. His demand has come despite a pending court ruling that could ban the scheme on the grounds that it makes illegal use of public funds to send students to private, religious schools.

Just weeks ago his brother, President George W Bush, revived the voucher debate on the national stage. The president drew attention to a little-noticed clause in his proposed 2006 budget, which calls for $50 million (pound;26m) to fund US-wide voucher schemes.

The Florida scheme could grow to include nearly 200,000 students from its current quota of 25,000 under governor Bush's plan. The new vouchers, called "reading compact" scholarships, would be given to students who fail Florida's standardised reading tests three times in a row.

Governor Bush said it was "as American as apple pie to give people choice when what's provided isn't working".

But the proposals could be jeopardised by a Florida Supreme Court judgement that threatens to outlaw much of the state's existing vouchers programme.

Judges must decide whether to uphold earlier rulings that public money cannot go to church schools, which dominate voucher schemes such as Florida's.

Vouchers are a divisive issue in US education. Those who support the schemes see them as a vital extension of consumer choice and argue that competition drives up standards in state schools.

Opponents, including most teachers and Democrats, say they are a drain on the state system's energy and resources. Others argue that vouchers undermine accountability reforms.

Under Florida's proposed scheme, students would not re-take the tests if they failed. Jeb Bush has also resisted calls for participating private schools to publish test scores and has said that schools are "graded by parents choosing (the scheme)".

Jeffrey Henig, political science and education professor at Columbia university's teachers' college, said many supporters of vouchers favour minimal regulations so that schools are free to follow the market.

Monitoring the educational effectiveness of vouchers is difficult because no one oversees them, and some critics argue that they are a recipe for abuse.

Last year, the longest-standing voucher scheme - in Cleveland, Ohio - was marred by reports that some schools were run by untrained staff and criminals.

At the launch of Florida's new proposals, officials were red-faced when it emerged that the children of a parent selected to promote the existing scheme were ineligible as they attended a private Catholic school before receiving vouchers to go to Potter's House Christian academy.

A report from the People for the American Way, an anti-voucher group, found that more than 200 of the 1,300-plus students enrolled in a government-backed voucher trial in Washington were from private schools.

Fewer than 75 came from struggling state schools.

Ohio governor Bill Taft recently outlined plans to expand Cleveland's scheme. South Carolina is considering proposals to turn private-school expenses into a tax write-off. Utah rejected similar proposals last month.

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