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Palm Beach Post Calls Corporate Voucher Plan More Sham than Success

The people who dictate education policy in Florida -- a group that includes the governor -- are very pleased with their progress. It's as if they all attend one of those 1960s-era schools where students grade themselves and the curriculum revolves around self-esteem.

Gov. Bush's recent declaration that his corporate voucher program is a "proven success" is the latest star he stuck on his own report. The state doesn't know which students or schools get the money, which is up to a two-year total of $138 million. The state doesn't know who is teaching them, what they're teaching them or what kind of grades the students get. The state didn't even know, allegedly, that a private school linked to terrorism was getting a hefty chunk of the vouchers.

The state does know, as The Post has reported, that a Department of Education employee says he saw a colleague tampering with some of the few records the state must maintain on the program. Bob Metty says that William Greiner, a Bush campaign operative who got a DOE job, cut the fax date off records attesting that private schools getting the vouchers are financially sound. The implication? Education Secretary Jim Horne's agency hadn't bothered to do the check, required by law, and was belatedly gathering the records -- and illegally altering the records -- because The Post had asked to see them.

What would happen in that 1960s school if one child were so rude as to point out that some of his classmates hadn't really read the books they listed to earn a rainbow sticker? Naturally, the whistle-blower would be admonished not to hurt the others' feelings. The Jeb Bush administration's version of that is to transfer the offending employee to a make-work job and commission an internal investigation that, with amazing swiftness, finds no evidence of wrongdoing.

It is by now standard for Gov. Bush to color impatiently outside the lines and then post the mess on the state's refrigerator so everyone can ooh and ahh over his "creativity." His school-grading scheme -- which misuses the otherwise valuable FCAT -- was his first self-declared masterpiece. Not all observers see something to gush over. The grades fluctuated unaccountably and conflicted with federal findings. Highly graded schools -- nearly always affluent schools -- got bonus money that should have helped poorer ones. Bad grades hurt teacher recruiting.

And when his grading rules threatened to flunk record numbers of seniors and third-graders, Gov. Bush and Mr. Horne, whom he appointed, at the last minute promised remedial programs -- such as "reading camps" and English immersion classes -- which in many cases have been ineffective or were not provided.

To some extent, there's nothing to be done about a governor determined to draw smiley-faces on his paper, no matter how shoddy the work. And there always will be people to tell the most well-connected student what a great job he's doing. So WCI Communities Inc. and others contribute to the governor's corporate vouchers, as well as to his party and campaign accounts. Evidently, it is enough that the governor knows who gets the voucher tax break, because the state does not make a list public.

But at some point, the clique no longer answers only to itself. That should have come when the members decided to hand out money with no oversight. It should come now that there is evidence of an illegal coverup. It should come in the wake of The Post's revelation last week that an Islamic school in Tampa has received $350,000 in corporate vouchers even as the school's founder and others linked to the school have been indicted on terrorism charges.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered investigations of charities for less. Mr. Ashcroft's notice is not so likely in this case, since the group that OK'd the vouchers is run by John Kirtley, the Tampa businessman who started the secretive voucher program with a $100,000 donation to the GOP. On Friday, Mr. Kirtley suspended money to the school while an investigation is conducted.

The obvious need, however, is for investigators outside the Department of Education to investigate the alleged criminal activity. That could be state Attorney General Charlie Crist or an independent investigator. And, of course, the Legislature must require the accountability that lawmakers and the governor should have demanded to begin with: a full list of donors and recipient schools, as well as a requirement that students using the vouchers take the FCAT and that the schools' results be made public.

All this might come as a blow to the governor's self-esteem. He's possessive of the gold stars he awarded himself. But the money going to private schools is money that should go to public schools.

— Editorial
Palm Beach Post
Corporate voucher plan more sham than success





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