Florida Court Rules Voucher Program Unconstitutional
Florida's First District Court of Appeals ended 17 months of suspense by finally and unequivocally agreeing with a lower court that private school vouchers are inconsistent with the Florida State Constitution.
The statewide A+ voucher program has been tied up in the courts since the day after it was signed into law in 1999. The court ruled 2-1 that the "Opportunity Scholarship" voucher program violates a state constitutional provision that expressly prohibits the expenditure of public funds "directly or indirectly" to aid sectarian institutions.
The Florida Education Association (FEA) said the Aug. 16 ruling should send a "strong message" to the governor and declared it a "triumph for public schools and Florida taxpayers."
Ruling May Put Other Voucher Programs at Risk
Voucher proponents fear that if the program is deemed unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court, the state's McKay voucher program for students with disabilities would also be ruled unconstitutional. Social service programs that fund sectarian service providers could be at risk as well.
As reported by Education Week (free registration required), "Most students who transfer out of public schools using the Opportunity Scholarships enroll in religious private schools."
Mark E. DeForrest, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, whose research was cited by the Florida appeals court, told the New York Times (free registration required), "The Florida case is really the bellwether that everyone is looking at. It's something that almost all the other states will look at closely. They're not going to be bound by it, but they're definitely going to be influenced by it."
Accountability Problems Plague Voucher Programs
Voucher programs in Florida have been plagued with accountability problems, highlighted most recently by the arrest of seven people charged with racketeering, conspiracy, grand theft, and forgery in a scheme that bilked the taxpayers of more than $200,000.
The charges are based on allegations that officials at the Faith Christian Academy accepted payments under both the McKay voucher program for students with disabilities and the tuition tax credit voucher program, for students who had returned to public school, and also stole from the federal school lunch program.
A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush said the arrests were "an example of the system working properly," leaving observers to wonder why preventing fraud, waste, and abuse in the first place by implementing appropriate accountability measures are not parts of the system.
The full text of the Court of Appeals opinion on the Opportunity Scholarship program is available online (PDF, 86 pages). The state is expected to appeal the decision to the Florida Supreme Court and the program is likely to remain in operation during the appeal process.