Rick Scott transition team proposals stirring debate

— Private school vouchers for all children and a merger of Florida's environmental, community planning and transportation agencies were among the suggestions of Gov-elect Rick Scott's transition teams that were already stirring debate Wednesday.

The incoming Republican governor, who takes office Jan. 4, has previously expressed support for universal vouchers.

What his education transition team calls "education savings accounts" would provide a voucher worth 85 percent of what the state spends on a student in public school to each child who goes instead to a private school.

The vouchers also could be used for private tutoring, virtual schools and colleges or to purchase books for dual enrollment programs. The money also could be put into college savings plans.

The education transition team is chaired by Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. Bush has been a strong voucher supporter.

In a report to Scott this week, the team says the state would save 15 percent for every student who gets a voucher.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, questioned that math.

"What do you do with the 500,000 kids already in private schools?" Blanton asked. "It's a simple solution to a complicated problem that just won't work."

Blanton said another problem is private schools are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, said the proposal also faces "a huge constitutional issue."

The Florida Supreme Court stuck down a more limited voucher program that Bush launched, ruling that it violated a provision in the Florida Constitution requiring a uniform system of public schools. Meyer had argued the case on behalf of the statewide teachers union and other challengers.

The transition team acknowledged that pitfall by also recommending a review of the constitution's education article to determine if it "is still appropriate for the changing environment of the 21st century."

An amendment to legalize vouchers would require approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters and likely wouldn't go on the ballot until 2012.

"I can't imagine the voters would vote for an amendment to do away with public schools," Meyer said.

The transition team on regulatory issues has recommended merging the departments of Environmental Protection, Community Affairs and Transportation, saying they've been roadblocks to development and are beset by "mistrust, competition, duplication and conflict."

The proposed merger puzzled Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.

"They don't have really overlapping areas of responsibility," Draper said. "There's a lot of difference between building roads and preventing pollution."

Draper, though, said the transition team "is on to something" with other recommendations. He cheered a proposal to do away with a requirement for adequate transportation infrastructure before development can occur in urban areas.

That concept, known as concurrency, might sound good, but it has led to sprawl by encouraging development in the countryside where roads are less congested and cheaper to build than in cities and suburbs.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Florida TaxWatch, a business-supported budget watchdog group, issue joint recommendations on juvenile justice similar to some that Scott has received from his law-and-order transition team.

Both sets of recommendations say the state can save money and get a better outcome by reducing penalties for minor crimes and allowing some children to stay at home with electronic monitoring instead of locking them up.

"Florida not only incarcerates far too many low-risk children, but they stay too long in residential facilities, making it harder for them when they are released," said Vanessa Carroll, co-director of the law center's Florida youth initiative.

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