Kathy Kidder: Is public funding of private schools constitutional?


Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 12:07 a.m.

In 1998, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush proposed to improve the quality of education through alternatives to the public schools, and "school choice" was born. Fifteen years later, Florida is a leader in the number of charter schools, online programs and private school voucher programs that parents can select for their children.

Is taxpayer money that supports these programs being used as the framers of the Florida Constitution intended and as the courts and voters confirmed? Are these programs cost efficient? Do they meet the same standards as traditional public schools?

These are questions that the League of Women Voters of Alachua County Education Team has been studying with reference to our local school system.

This column focuses on the effects of legislative initiatives providing public funds for private, including religious, schools. Future columns will address issues relating to charter schools and online programs.

The Florida Constitution firmly places the responsibility for the education of its children on the state with its decree that "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allow students to obtain a high quality education."

Article I, Section 3 further states: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." So the question arises: Is public funding of private, often religious schools constitutional?

In 1999, the Florida Legislature authorized publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools, but the law was ruled unconstitutional in Bush v. Holmes in 2006. In 2012, voters strongly rejected the legislature's attempt to amend the Florida Constitution to allow such programs.

Despite the judgment of the judiciary and the citizens of Florida, the Legislature approved the use of public tax dollars to fund McKay and Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarships. McKay scholarships allow disabled students, including those with learning disabilities, an option to enroll in a private or religious school.

From six recipients in 1999, they have grown to more than 24,000 in 2011-12. In Alachua County, 217 students received McKay scholarships totaling nearly $1.15 million to attend four private and 14 religious schools.

FTC scholarships allow low-income students to attend a private school. Scholarships are funded by corporations that deposit taxes owed to the state directly to a non-profit, Step Up For Children.

Funding for FTC scholarships is continuously expanding from a cap of $50 million in 2003 to $229 million currently that serve 40,200 students. In the most recent data from 2010-11, three private and 15 religious schools in Alachua County received more than $1.16 million for 306 students.

Public schools have higher standards for curriculum, teacher certification, graduation, and accreditation. The FCAT is required for private schools only if a parent requests it. Gov. Rick Scott called for increased accountability for private schools, but the Legislature has yet to respond.

In spite of questionable constitutionality and marginal accountability, the 2012 Legislature earmarked about $300 million for these tax-funded scholarships.

The questions about school choice and funding being asked by the League of Women Voters and others will be answered by the courts. A group of Florida parents, represented by the local public interest firm Southern Legal Counsel and its co-counsel Jon Mills of the University of Florida Law School, has filed a suit arguing that Florida is not meeting its constitutional mandate. A trial date is pending.

Kathy Kidder is president of the League of Women Voters of Alachua County.

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