ACLU of Florida Vows Challenge to Unconstitutional Voucher Scheme in Governor's New Education Plan

January 26, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, January 26, 1999

MIAMI–The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today vowed a court challenge to any voucher scheme embedded in the education plan unveiled yesterday by Governor Jeb Bush and Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan violates both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

Yesterday, Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Brogan unveiled their “A+ Plan to Reform Public Education in Florida,” which contains “opportunity scholarships for students in failing schools.” These scholarships are publicly funded vouchers that would allow children attending troubled schools (schools in which test scores and graduation rates are low and dropouts rates are high) to attend private and parochial schools.

“No effort to disguise vouchers by the use of benign-sounding terms like Ôopportunity scholarships’ can hide the fact that this is a transfer of tax dollars to private schools, most of which are religious schools,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida.

Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution states: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

“There could not be a clearer prohibition on the Governor’s proposed use of taxpayer dollars than the ban contained in our State Constitution,” Simon said.

In fact, the author of the law, former state representative Jim Redman, told the St. Petersburg Times last November that the provision was created specifically to prohibit the use of tax dollars for religious schools. “We didn’t call it vouchers, but that was the sort of thing we were talking about: Catholic schools, or any other kind of religious schools, getting state money,” Redman told the Times.

The ACLU’s Simon agreed. “Everybody wants to improve the public schools, especially those that are failing the needs of Florida’s inner-city and rural children,” he said, “but using tax dollars to encourage some parents and students to abandon the public schools is not a plan for the improvement of Florida’s public schools.”

A real program to improve the schools, the ACLU said, would address issues like class size, teacher training, student standards, ensuring that every school has access to computers and books, encouraging parental involvement in education, and ensuring that education takes place in a safe environment. Vouchers siphon money away from the public schools, money needed to improve the neighborhood school where most parents choose to send their children.

“There is no alternative to improving the neighborhood public school,” Simon added. “Vouchers make the situation worse, not better. In fact, the state of Florida has a new constitutional duty, under a provision passed by the voters in November, to provide adequate public schools. Vouchers are inconsistent with that duty.”

Simon also warned that it is shortsighted for supporters of private and parochial schools to be seduced by the possibility of government aid. “Government regulations follow government money as sure as night follows day.”

Indeed, in yesterday’s announcement Lt. Gov. Brogan said that private schools that accept vouchers would be subject to the same kind of student testing requirements as state schools.

The ACLU is involved in voucher challenges throughout the country. In Wisconsin, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision permitting public funds for religious schools in Milwaukee. The Supreme Court ruled for the ACLU striking down a voucher program in Puerto Rico, and in Vermont and Ohio, the ACLU has prevailed in constitutional challenges to voucher programs in lower state courts. Decisions by both state supreme courts are expected shortly.

“The ACLU of Florida will challenge any voucher program authorized that unconstitutionally permits the use of public tax dollars to support private and sectarian religious schools or that would lead to the resegregation of Florida’s public schools,” Simon vowed.

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