Proposal could restore vouchers


Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:37 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - An unconstitutional school voucher program could be restored and a ban on state aid to religious organizations and institutions could be at least partly lifted through a proposal introduced Friday.

The proposed state constitutional amendment would undo two court decisions that threw out one of former Gov. Jeb Bush's pet projects in 2005. The Opportunity Scholarship Program gave students from failing public schools vouchers to attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense.

Taxation and Budget Reform Commission sponsors said their proposal, though, will serve a broader purpose of ending bias against faith-based providers who offer all kinds of public services.

"To get rid of that religious discrimination that's in our constitution you have to ensure that there's choice for health care, for elder care, for juvenile justice care, for substance abuse, for homelessness," said Commissioner Patricia Levesque.

Levesque is executive director of two foundations Bush has established to advance his educational policy goals. She sits on the commission's Governmental Procedures and Structure Committee, which introduced the proposal.

The measure will be discussed more before a decision whether to send the measure to the full commission, which could then put it on the November ballot.

The proposal drew opposition from the Florida Education Association. The statewide teachers union was one of several groups that challenged the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Union lawyer Ron Meyer told the committee that the proposal, which doesn't specifically mention vouchers, would undermine the foundation of the state's public school financing program and result in more challenges based on equal rights provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

"Stop hiding what you're doing here," Meyer said. "This is about vouchers."

The commission proposal would create exceptions to two existing provisions in the Florida Constitution by saying the Legislature can enact programs using private providers "in every field as permitted by law" without regard to their religious nature.

One of the existing constitutional provisions requires a uniform system of high-quality public schools. It was cited by the Florida Supreme Court in striking down Bush's voucher program. The justices ruled the program created a separate and unequal system of publicly supported schools.

The commission proposal also would lift an existing constitutional ban against direct or indirect state aid of any kind to churches and other religious organizations and institutions.

The Supreme Court said there was no need to decide if it also made the voucher program unconstitutional. The 1st District Court of Appeal, though, earlier had ruled that it did.

School choice advocates are afraid the appellate ruling could be used as a precedent to attack other state programs that use faith-based providers. That includes state scholarships for students attending private colleges, Florida's voluntary prekindergaten program and two other voucher programs.

The Florida Education Association has no plans to challenge those programs, Meyer said, but committee members said he couldn't guarantee the union or some one else wouldn't do so in the future.

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