Law & Courts

Florida Vouchers Dealt Another Legal Blow

By Joetta L. Sack — November 23, 2004 3 min read

For the third time, a Florida court has struck down the state’s best-known voucher program, calling it unconstitutional because it allows students to attend religious schools with taxpayer money—a violation, the court said, of the state constitution.

The latest blow to the 5-year-old Opportunity Scholarship program was dealt Nov. 12 by the full panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, which voted 8-5, with one abstention, to uphold an August decision by a three-member panel of that court that found the program unconstitutional. (“Florida Weighs Impact of Ruling Against Voucher Program,” Sept. 1, 2004.) The latest ruling puts the future of the voucher program, which now gives state-financed tuition vouchers of up to $3,900 to about 690 students, in further doubt.

The ruling disappointed Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who has been the program’s chief proponent. Although he plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Florida, it is unclear whether that highest state court will hear it.

Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, said that the governor was committed to fighting for the program, and was heartened by the votes of the five judges in the minority.

“It’s unfortunate that there are those who continue to try to deny the predominantly poor and minority parents the rights to choose the schools that their children attend,” Mr. DiPietre said.

But the state’s main teachers’ union and advocates for strict separation of church and state were happy.

“This is now the third court that has shown that the voucher law that was passed is unconstitutional; it’s to the point where the governor seems to be delaying the inevitable,” said Mark Pudlow, the spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a 122,000-member affiliate of both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

“I hope Governor Bush and state legislators get the message that you can’t force Florida taxpayers to support religion,” Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a written statement.

Mr. Pudlow said his union is concerned that more students each year are receiving the vouchers and enrolling in private schools while the case goes through the court system. The students have been allowed to continue receiving and using the scholarships while the case is under litigation. That could cause significant upheaval, he said, if the final verdict strikes down the law, a decision he said he expects in the coming months.

Awaiting Final Ruling

“That’s part of [Gov. Bush’s] strategy, to string this out in courts as long as possible,” Mr. Pudlow added. “It doesn’t seem like it’s very responsible governing.”

In the most recent decision, the judges writing the majority opinion held that a 1885 provision in the Florida Constitution prohibits taxpayer funds from going toward the direct or indirect aid of any religious institution.

But the dissenting judges argued that the state constitution does not set a higher bar than the U.S. Constitution, in a reference to the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland voucher program, which provides publicly financed tuition aid that students can use at religious and other private schools.

The Florida appellate judges in the majority saluted the voucher program’s goal of giving better educational opportunities to “children trapped in substandard schools.”

“Nevertheless, the courts do not have the authority to ignore the clear language of the [state] Constitution, even for a popular program with a worthy purpose,” the majority wrote in its decision this month.

State legislators enacted the Opportunity Scholarship program in 1999 to offer tuition aid to help students in failing public schools transfer, whether to religious schools, other private schools, or out-of-district public schools. About half the recipients have enrolled in religiously based schools.

The program is open to students who attend schools that receive two failing grades on state report cards within a four-year period. That criterion means that only students from a handful of schools are likely to be eligible. Participation in the program increased slightly to some 690 students in about 20 failing schools this year, according to the governor’s office. About 660 students received the vouchers last year.

An ultimate decision in the case by Florida’s high court could also affect the state’s McKay Scholarships, which go to about 12,000 special education students. Many education groups expect that voucher foes could use a final ruling against the Opportunity Scholarships to challenge the constitutionality of the McKay program as well.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Florida Vouchers Dealt Another Legal Blow


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts How a Cheerleader's Snapchat Profanity Could Shape the Limits of Students' Free Speech
Brandi Levy's social media post is the basis for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether schools may punish off-campus speech.
9 min read
Image of Brandi Levy.
Brandi Levy, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was a cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania when she made profane comments on Snapchat that are now at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case on student speech rights.
Danna Singer/Provided by the American Civil Liberties Union
Law & Courts Student School Board Members Flex Their Civic Muscle in Supreme Court Free-Speech Case
Current and former student school board members add their growing voices to a potentially precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case.
7 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
Law & Courts Justice Department Memo Could Stoke State-Federal Fights Over Transgender Students' Rights
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, a Justice Department memo says.
3 min read
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D. on March 11, 2021.
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on allowing transgender girls and women to play in female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D.
Stephen Groves/AP
Law & Courts Diverse Array of Groups Back Student in Supreme Court Case on Off-Campus Speech
John and Mary Beth Tinker, central to the landmark speech case that bears their name, argue that even offensive speech merits protection.
5 min read
In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, Mary Beth Tinker, 61, shows an old photograph of her with her brother John Tinker to the Associated Press during an interview in Washington. Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them. "It's better for our whole society when kids have a voice," she says.
In this 2013 photo, Mary Beth Tinker shows a 1968 Associated Press photograph of her with her brother John Tinker displaying the armbands they had worn in school to protest the Vietnam War. (The peace symbols were added after the school protest). The Tinkers have filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a Pennsylvania student who was disciplined for an offensive message on Snapchat.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP