Parents, Educators Denounce Florida Voucher Scheme, Say Program Hurts Public Schools

June 6, 2005 12:00 am

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TALLAHASSEE, FL – The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow on the constitutionality of Florida’s school voucher program in a case that will determine whether the state can continue diverting much-needed tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private, mostly church-run schools.

“My children and other public school students throughout Florida deserve a high quality education at their neighborhood public school,” said plaintiff Susan Watson, whose two children Seth, 16, and Sybil, 13, attend Pensacola public schools. “Vouchers that force me to fund church-run schools are not the answer to address the real problems facing our public schools.”

A broad coalition of groups including the Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers (Florida PTA), Florida Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Florida NAACP, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress has been challenging the Florida voucher scheme – known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program – since its inception in 1999.

In November 2004, the First District Court of Appeal ruled that the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program represented a scheme by which government funds were used to support religious institutions, in violation of Florida’s 137-year-old Constitutional prohibition specifically barring aid to religious institutions. The appeals court upheld two earlier decisions striking down vouchers that were issued by a three-judge panel of the same court and by the Leon County Circuit Court.

Although vouchers were initially only distributed to students in Escambia County schools, vouchers for private and church-run schools became available statewide during the 2003-2004 school year. The ACLU argues that because many of the participating schools are church-run schools, the voucher program has unconstitutionally transferred taxpayers’ money to religious institutions.

“What is at stake in this case is one of the very essential founding principles of our government – that no one should be forced through the tax system to finance religious institutions whose beliefs they may not share,” said attorney Ron Meyer, who is serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit. “Of course, it is profoundly important that parents have the right to send their children, at their own expense, to schools of their choice, including schools that share their religious values. However, taxpayers should not be forced to finance religious institutions with which they do not agree.”

Although there are other programs in Florida that receive funding from religious institutions, including the corporate tax credit program and the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, the only issue before the Justices tomorrow is whether the voucher program violates the Florida Constitution.

A decision striking down vouchers in Florida will have no direct or immediate impact on any other state program, and will not jeopardize existing government contracts with religious, charitable and social service agencies, added Meyer.

“The outcome in this case will have a profound impact on Florida families who rely on the neighborhood public school for the formal education of their children,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida.

“With the mandated reduction in class size that will ensure more individualized attention, and the new Universal Pre-K program that will ensure greater readiness for school, Florida is poised to make serious improvements in the education of our children,” added Simon. “Ignoring Florida’s constitutional tradition prohibiting aid to religious institutions and using taxpayer dollars to support church-run schools only serves to undermine these important reforms.”

The case is Bush et al. v. Holmes et al. (No. SC 04-2323). Plaintiffs include the Florida NAACP, Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers (Florida PTA) and parents, educators and students in the public schools of Pensacola.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs include: Ronald G. Meyer, of Tallahassee, Robert H. Chanin, John M. West and Alice O’Brien, of Washington, D.C., Randall Marshall, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida and Steve Shapiro, Legal Director, National ACLU, New York.

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