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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Florida Supremes Ax State's School Voucher Program

Jim Brown
and Jody Brown

A constitutional attorney says he's troubled by the Florida Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down the state's school voucher law.

On Thursday (Jan. 5), the highest court in the Sunshine State ruled that the nation's first statewide system that allows some children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense violates the Florida Constitution. Voting 5-2, the court's justices determined the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program is illegal under the constitution because it sets up an "alternative system" that is not accountable to the state.

In its ruling, the court stated that "diversion of money not only reduces public funds for a public education but also uses public funds to provide an alternative education in private schools that are not subject to the 'uniformity' requirements for public schools." The program currently serves about 700 children in Florida.

The Florida Constitution requires a uniform system of free public schools. Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney with the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, believes a majority of the justices misconstrued the uniformity requirement.

"I think that's a pretty strange reading of the Florida constitution," Fahling asserts. "Certainly common sense would suggest that you're not talking about schools being homogenous." The attorney suggests that uniformity under the state constitution "really means with respect to availability — but not, for instance, that every school in Florida ought to be a failing public school."

The AFA attorney contends the decision to toss out the voucher system was based on strained reasoning and defies common sense. In addition, he views the ruling as being "fairly hostile to the idea of private schools and [to] the idea that there would be any competition introduced into the marketplace in the area of education or public education."

"It's a troubling decision," Fahling adds. "I think it's really a setback for the people of the state of Florida."

Opponents of the voucher law included the Florida Education Association, the Florida PTA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other liberal groups. The US Department of Justice was among the groups that filed "friend of the court" briefs in support of the voucher program.

The Washington Post reports that proponents of the Florida voucher program intend to pursue other avenues for continuing its availability, such as amending the state constitution or appealing yesterday's decision to the US Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court's ruling is not expected to have a direct impact on school voucher programs in other states, although it may motivate supporters to closely examine the programs to ensure they are in compliance with their state laws. In fact, officials with the Kansas Board of Education — on the same day as the Florida ruling — announced they were going to delay a vote on a school voucher program that would give at-risk and special education students public money for private school.

  • (This article courtesy of Agape Press.)

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