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After setback, what's next for vouchers?

A Florida court ruling that a statewide voucher system must be dismantled dealt a blow to advocates nationwide.

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It wasn't that her son was getting bad grades at school. It was the fact that he wasn't getting any grades at all that bothered Angela Mack.

She moved him out of Booker T. Washington Senior High, one of Miami's lowest achieving public schools, and into the private Lincoln-Marti school, thanks to a state-funded voucher program. Now, not only does Jeffrey Mack complete his assignments, he scores A and B grades.

But in paying to give more than 700 underprivileged students like Jeffrey a private legup, Florida has breached its own constitution, which mandates a "uniform" system of public schooling, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.

The judges' order that the Opportunity Scholarship Program - a cornerstone of Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms and the first statewide voucher system in the nation - must be dismantled this fall has dealt a bitter blow to families like the Macks and to school voucher advocates nationwide.

Opponents are delighted, however, believing that it brings legal force and impetus to their efforts to fight the growth of voucher systems elsewhere.

"For the last five or six years, Florida has really been the center of the school voucher universe," says Marc Egan, director of federal affairs at the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which opposes the diversion of public dollars into private-sector schools. "Having been such a flagship, the fact that it is going to lose one - or possibly all - of its voucher programs blows a major hole in the national voucher movement."

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was enacted in 1999. It permits students at "failing" schools - defined as schools that have received two F grades from the state within a four-year period - to switch to a higher performing school, either public or private.

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