Florida Supreme Court declares vouchers unconstititional

Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:30 p.m.

The Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's voucher system that allows some children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense, saying it violates the state constitution's requirement of a uniform system of free public schools.

Thursday's 5-2 opinion struck down the Opportunity Scholarship Program, championed by Gov. Jeb Bush, which was the nation's first statewide system of school vouchers. About 700 children statewide are using the program to attend a private or parochial school after transferring from a public school the state considers to be failing.

Chief Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority, said the program "diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools," which are the sole means set out in the state constitution for educating Florida children.

Private schools also are not uniform when compared with each other or the public system and they are exempt from many standards imposed by law on public schools, such as mandatory testing, she added.

Justices Kenneth Bell and Raoul Cantero, both appointed by Bush, dissented.

The 1999 law previously had been ruled unconstitutional by the 1st District Court of Appeal on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state in the Florida Constitution.

The high court found no need to address that issue after finding vouchers violate the public education provision.

The law was challenged a day after Bush signed it.

More than a dozen groups filed "friends-of-the-court" briefs in the case, ranging from the U.S. Department of Justice, supporting the state, to the International Reading Association, supporting the voucher opponents.

Those opponents include the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union; the Florida PTA; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the League of Women Voters.

Two more recent voucher programs dwarf the "opportunity scholarships."

Nearly 14,000 students attend private schools on McKay scholarships, which was created for children with disabilities, and another 10,000 poor children attend private schools on scholarships funded by businesses that get tax credits from the state.

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