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Education Reporter

Florida Voters Won't Consider Vouchers After All
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The Florida Supreme Court struck down ballot measures that would have expanded and protected school choice. The proposals asked voters to reconsider a clause in the state's constitution that deters Floridians from using school vouchers at religious schools. Florida has led the way in school choice with several innovative voucher programs, but school choice has also faced opposition in the courts.

It is controversial whether the constitutional clause in question should actually prevent voucher use at religious schools. Florida and 36 other states have so-called "Blaine amendments" prohibiting religious institutions from receiving any public funds. Many states added such amendments in the late 19th century, motivated by anti-Catholic prejudice.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the school reform group Foundation for Florida's Future, said that until recently Florida's Blaine amendment applied only to services that were actually religious in nature, rather than to all services provided by religious groups. An interpretation of the amendment that prohibited state funds from going to religious groups, no matter what services the groups were providing, would jeopardize not only education, but also health care and foster care. Religious groups currently receive state funds for important services they provide in those areas.

The November ballot item would have amended the constitution to state that "individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion."

Citing the Blaine amendment, a Florida appellate court struck down a statewide voucher program in 2004 as unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court upheld that decision in 2006.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission agreed to put the voucher question to voters this fall, proposing two related amendments to the state constitution. The Commission linked the voucher question to a separate education proposal requiring school districts to spend at least 65% of their budget on "classroom instruction rather than on administration."

The largest Florida teachers union, an NEA affiliate, challenged the legality of the ballot language, saying it was confusing and intentionally deceptive. The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State supported the Florida Education Association. On September 3, the state Supreme Court moved quickly, without issuing a written opinion, to strike down the school choice proposals in time for the final ballot deadline.

Voucher opponents were elated. Bill Graham, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board, said the court's decision was "almost Christmas and Hanukkah in September."

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed school choice during his time in office, called the decision "heartbreaking." He warned that even Florida's well established voucher programs for low-income and disabled students are vulnerable to similar legal attacks. "These programs, as well as 350 charter schools in our great state, will remain in limbo, under the real threat of litigation from individuals who want to centralize all education decisions within government bureaucracies," he said. (Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9-4-08, School Reform News, June 2008)

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