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Published in Print: May 2, 2001, as Florida Wins a Round In Legal Challenge To Its Voucher Program

Florida Wins a Round In Legal Challenge To Its Voucher Program

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The Florida Supreme Court declined last week to hear a case challenging the state's school voucher program, letting stand an appellate court decision that rejected a claim that private school vouchers for students in failing public schools are unconstitutional.

The high court's 4-1 vote against reviewing the appellate decision effectively cuts off one legal argument against the law: that it violates a clause in the state constitution that requires public education to be uniform and of high quality.

But there are two more claims that the lower courts must still consider: first, that the voucher plan runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on a government establishment of religion, and second, that the voucher program is not applied equally and fairly.

The court's decision to let the appeals ruling stand drew applause from Gov. Jeb Bush and state education officials, who have fought for the 2-year-old voucher program. Enacted in 1999 as part of Mr. Bush's "A+ For Education" plan, it is formally known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

"I look forward to returning to the trial court to prove once and for all that the Opportunity Scholarship Program complies fully with the U.S. and Florida constitutions," Gov. Bush, a Republican, said in a statement released by his office.

Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist said in a statement that the program surpasses the constitutional requirement that the state provide a free system of public education, the very clause that the plaintiffs had contended was violated by the program.

"What we have here in Florida exceeds and surpasses this requirement by giving parents of children attending failing schools the option of choosing a higher-performing public school or private school," Mr. Crist argued.

Case To Continue

But voucher opponents said the fight was far from over."Obviously, there are more constitutional issues that are going to be discussed, including separation of church and state," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. The 120,000-member union was joined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Florida PTA, the League of Women Voters, and individual families in suing the state. "Ultimately, this voucher law will be found unconstitutional," Mr. Clark said.

Last October, a three-member state appellate panel overturned a lower court's decision that the program violated the Florida Constitution's requirement for a "uniform" system of free public schools. ("Fla. Court Overturns Ruling Against Voucher Program," Oct. 11, 2000.)

Under the voucher plan, students at schools deemed failing under the state's grading system for two years out of four can receive vouchers worth about $4,000 each for use either at other public schools or at private schools, including religious ones.

Currently, 51 students from two schools in Pensacola are attending private schools at public expense, according to the education commissioner's office. Last year, state officials announced that all of the 78 schools that had received failing grades in 1999 had improved their scores, so no new students became eligible to receive vouchers for the current school year. ("Vouchers Stall as Fla. Schools Up Their Scores," July 12, 2000.)

The Pensacola students who had previously qualified have been allowed to continue receiving vouchers and to attend private schools while the case is still under review by the courts.

Vol. 20, Issue 33, Page 21

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