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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Florida Governor Poised To Sign Statewide Voucher Bill

Florida Governor Poised To Sign Statewide Voucher Bill

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Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida was expected this week to sign legislation that will create the first statewide voucher program in the country, setting in motion what will likely be a protracted legal battle that could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Approved by the legislature April 30 as a top priority of the freshman Republican governor, the program will offer publicly funded vouchers to students attending schools that the state deems to be failing because of low test scores and other factors.

Pupils in two Pensacola elementary schools are expected to be the only students eligible to receive vouchers to attend qualified public, private, or religious schools in the coming school year, based on the preliminary results of this year's state tests. In future years, however, as the state's recently upgraded academic standards take hold, the program is expected to expand.

A coalition of organizations--including the state affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People--is expected to sue the state soon after the voucher plan becomes law.

Constitutional Debate

They contend the program violates state and federal constitutional barriers to government aid to religion. Parents and students throughout Florida, as well as the NAACP, will likely be named as plaintiffs.

"The state is going to be forced to argue that the state constitution doesn't mean what it says," asserted Andrew H. Kayton, the legal director for the state branch of the ACLU. Florida's constitution prohibits both direct and indirect aid to religious institutions. Florida "has the strongest language against state aid to religion of any state yet to be challenged" on vouchers, Mr. Kayton said.

Observers predict that a church-state lawsuit over the new program could ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has not ruled directly on the constitutionality of allowing students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend religious schools. (See story, Page 14.)

Meanwhile, the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a legal-advocacy organization that has defended existing voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, has been working with the Florida attorney general's office to prepare a defense.

The group expects to represent several families from Pensacola's A.A. Dixon Elementary School and the Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy. Pupils at both those schools in the 46,000-student Escambia County school district will qualify for vouchers.

"We are ready to hit the ground running," said Clint Bolick, the institute's litigation director.

Mr. Bolick acknowledged that Florida's constitutional language against state-supported religion is stronger than that in many other states. But, he argued: "This is about education, not religion. Religion plays an extremely incidental role, and the role it plays is as an educational rescue mission."

Approximately 80 families from the two Pensacola schools, whose combined enrollment numbers 920 students, attended a recent informational session with voucher proponents, representatives from the state education department, and private schools officials. The education department has also fielded more than 200 calls to a hot line set up on May 24 to provide families with information about the voucher program.

Four of Pensacola's five Roman Catholic schools and one other private school have indicated that they will accept students using the state-financed vouchers, which will be good for up to $3,400 a year in tuition and fees. By July 1, families must notify the state if they plan to use a voucher or transfer their children to a public school not in the state's failing category.

With year-round classes beginning July 20, parents and school officials at both elementary schools are trying to spread word about curriculum and staffing changes they are implementing to improve school performance, said Barbara Frye, the spokeswoman for the Escambia County district.

Despite the stigma associated with being the only two schools in the state whose students qualify for vouchers, the schools will continue to try to raise achievement, Ms. Frye said.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 20,23

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