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Florida High Court Rules Against Vouchers

In a 5-2 decision on Jan. 5, the Florida Supreme court struck down one of the state's voucher programs saying it violates the state constitution's requirement of a uniform system of free public schools.

NEA and the Florida Education Association (FEA) led the successful legal challenge to the statewide Opportunity Scholarship Program, the nation's first statewide voucher plan providing public funds for private education.

In a news release, NEA President Reg Weaver called the decision a resounding rejection of school vouchers and a crystal clear win for students, parents and public schools. 

The program had been ruled unconstitutional by a lower court on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state in the Florida Constitution. FEA reported that the court found no need to address that issue after finding vouchers violate the uniform public education provision.

As The Palm Beach Post reported, "For years, the focus of the challenge to vouchers was whether public money could be spent at religious schools despite a state constitution that said the contrary. But Thursday, the court used the much broader theory that because the constitution specifically describes the form of public schools the state will have, lawmakers lacked the authority to create private alternatives to that.

"The Supreme Court said it did not have to rule on the religion question because vouchers were clearly prohibited under the section of the constitution that requires a free, high-quality and "uniform" system of public schools. It left standing, but did not comment on, an appellate court ruling that found the vouchers unconstitutional on religion grounds, as well."

Ruling May Threaten Other Florida Voucher Programs

This latest ruling by Florida's highest court applies specifically to the statewide Opportunity Scholarship program now serving some 700 students in 53 schools. But even voucher advocates in Florida, including Gov. Jeb Bush, acknowledge that the ruling probably threatens one, if not both, of two larger state voucher schemes.

The ruling almost certainly applies to Florida's McKay voucher program that now serves 16,144 students with disabilities and may threaten the state's corporate tax credit vouchers going to 13,497 students.

"It has all the themes we've been advocating for years," said Robert Chanin, NEA general counsel, said of the ruling. "It really has all the themes of the values of public education over private education."

Governor Chose 'Reckless Strategy'

In an official response to the Supreme Court decision, FEA President Andy Ford said, in part:

The legislative staff that first worked on the original voucher bill noted that the measure had serious constitutional questions. Faced with a bevy of warnings about vouchers, don't you think the governor would have proceeded cautiously?

That's not the direction the governor chose. He worked to increase the number of voucher programs and the number of students who would be impacted when the Supreme Court finally reached its inevitable decision. So, instead of a limited voucher program, there are more than 27,000 students attending private, mostly religious, schools on the taxpayer's dime. More than $400 million has already been spent on vouchers in Florida -- and that's just payments for students to attend private schools. That figure doesn't include money spent in the legal defense of vouchers, promoting vouchers or the cost of setting up a parallel school system to administer vouchers within the state Department of Education. That was a reckless strategy the governor chose, meant to cause the most chaos when the court finally handed down its ruling.

…Why don't we focus on what works? The teachers and education support professionals who are the backbone of our public schools have already done everything the governor and the Legislature has asked of them. They've focused on raising achievement on the FCAT test, even though we know that is but a small part of a good educational system. But Florida's public school teachers have risen to the occasion and achievement is up on the FCAT test. We can realize so much more achievement if our leaders actually listened to public school teachers and implemented proven programs.

Let's all of us -- teachers, parents and political leaders -- work together to make Florida's public schools better. That will take smaller classes, a better funded and implemented pre-K program, less paperwork and mandates on the time of classroom teachers, increased salaries for teachers and all those who work so hard to make our public schools better and better funding for our public schools.

January 2006