"One child getting a better education makes our world a little bit better," said Sister Robert Ann, principal of St. Michael Interparochial School, where 20 of Florida's 58 voucher students began classes Aug.16. "And if they have a little bit of religion, all the better."
The program, launched at four Roman Catholic schools and one private school, allows students in Florida's worst public schools to receive vouchers of up to $3,389 a year to pay for private or parochial school education at taxpayer expense.
Under a law championed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, only children in schools deemed failures by the state are eligible. So far, student test scores have labeled only two schools, both in Pensacola, as failing. Florida has 2 million public school students.
The issue of vouchers has long been debated in educational circles. Proponents say it offers parents who could otherwise not afford it a choice of schools for their children. Opponents say it erodes public education and violates the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.
According to the Center for Education Reform, 20 surveys over the last two years have shown growing support in the U.S. for some form of school choice, be it vouchers, tax credits or some other proposal.
Florida was among more than a dozen states whose legislatures and courts have tackled the school choice issue in recent years.
A federal judge in Ohio ruled that Cleveland's school voucher program can't resume as scheduled. Nearly all of the 56 Cleveland schools that accept vouchers are religious.
Illinois and Minnesota have passed tax credit legislation. Courts in Arizona and Wisconsin upheld limited choice programs, while those in Maine and Vermont have excluded religious schools from state school-choice plans.
Legislatures in New Mexico and Texas considered, but failed to approve, school-choice bills in last year's sessions.
Lawsuits challenging the program have been filed by the NAACP, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, teachers unions and others.
Under the Florida program, voucher funds are taken from public education. Parents who participate do not have to pay the difference between the voucher amount and the tuition the private schools charge. Private schools that charge more must absorb the costs.
Only five private schools have agreed to take voucher students. Some administrators are afraid of lowering academic standards, and others want to see how the program works the first year.
Voucher students must attend religion classes and Mass with their classmates regardless of their religion, said Sister Mary Caplice, superintendent of Pensacola's Catholic schools.
"I've had other childrn attend the public school system and right now, academically, they're having some really hard times," said Brenda McShane of Pensacola, Fla., whose 6-year-old daughter Brenisha has begun classes at Montessori Early School.
Although she is a Methodist, Mary Smith decided to enroll her children, first-grader Antonio Held, 7, and fifth-grader Angela Atwood, 10, at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School.
"I believe if they put prayer back in school that they'll see a change," she said.
At St. Michael, boys in dark slacks and girls in plaid skirts gathered on Monday morning for the daily flag-raising and prayer to the school's patron saint, the voucher students indistinguishable from other classmates.
Teachers have not been told which students are on vouchers, said St. Michael's principal, Sister Robert Ann.
"They're more interested in saying, 'Here's my new children, what can I do to help them read and write and spell and do everything well'?" she said.