Christian groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward a new school voucher program passed by the Florida legislature, the first such statewide plan in the country.
"Vouchers are a marvelous idea," says Dino Padrone, pastor of Miami's New Testament Baptist Church. "Our concern is whether they will come with strings attached." Padrone's church operates two Christian schools with a combined enrollment of 1,750.
Under the law, which Gov. Jeb Bush proposed and has promised to sign, schools will be "graded" from A to F each year based on a handful of criteria, including standardized test scores. Students in failing public schools would be eligible to take the money the state pays for their education—about $4,000 a year —and use the voucher to cover the cost of attending any school they choose, including private religious schools.
Padrone says that in his multicultural school many families are excluded by the $6,000 per year tuition. But he is concerned that accepting state funds may have an impact on the emphasis of his schools. "We see the schools as an extension of the theology of what the church believes," he says.
Some schools are refusing to participate in the program for fear of losing control of doctrine. For instance, Ken Wackes, headmaster of Fort Lauderdale's Westminster Academy, a private Christian school with an enrollment of more than 1,200, says the school would no longer be allowed to accept only students whose parents are born-again Christians, nor could Bible class or chapel attendance be mandatory. "A school must take applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, with no screening allowed," he says.
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