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Voucher plan can wait

There's no reason for Gov. Jeb Bush to pursue his plan when a state Supreme Court ruling on vouchers' constitutionality is imminent.

A Times Editorial
Published March 7, 2005

Gov. Jeb Bush is eager to dramatically expand the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers even as the Florida Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether vouchers violate the state Constitution by allowing state dollars to be spent at religious schools. A more prudent approach would be to wait for the court's opinion and spend the state's time and resources on programs that could really benefit students.

The governor wants the Legislature to create a "Reading Compact Scholarship" that would provide a voucher to attend private school for any student who scores at the lowest reading level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for three straight years. That means more than 170,000 public school students would be eligible to use public money to attend private schools, including those schools with religious affiliations. While Bush estimates only a small portion of those students would use the vouchers, his proposal offers false hope for students who need real help learning to read.

Beyond the legal issues, there are practical reasons to question this approach. The state would be paying for students who failed FCAT reading tests to attend private schools, but students at those private schools are not required to take the FCAT. Exactly how would the state measure whether the students' reading had improved and public money was being wisely spent?

The governor appears to be focused on expanding the state's voucher programs to ensure a loud public protest if the Supreme Court rules vouchers for students in failing public schools, or Opportunity Scholarships, are unconstitutional. About 700 students are taking advantage of Opportunity Scholarships, and more than half are in faith-based schools. But Bush and other voucher supporters have warned that a court opinion finding those vouchers are unconstitutional could have far broader implications, jeopardizing vouchers for students with disabilities under the John M. McKay Scholarships Program, the new prekindergarten program that relies on religious-affiliated schools to accommodate the demand, and Bright Futures scholarships for college students who choose to attend private religious schools. Add tens of thousands of families with students who are poor readers, and there could be the foundation for a grass roots movement to amend the Constitution to allow public money to be spent at religious schools. This is a cynical approach by Bush and other voucher supporters that puts political maneuvering above learning. It is unfair to families who would be caught in the middle.

The Florida Constitution is clear: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever 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."

A trial court and an appellate court have held that the Opportunity Scholarships violate that provision and are unconstitutional. It is reasonable to expect the Florida Supreme Court to agree, but it is impossible to predict how far its opinion will ripple through the education system. The justices could rule as narrowly or as broadly as they choose. They could read the language of the constitutional provision at issue literally or liberally. If the court finds that vouchers to religious schools are unconstitutional, it would be hard to argue that the ruling should not apply to pre-K, McKay scholarships and Bright Futures.

The voucher controversy is nearly five years old, and the court is expected to rule in the coming months. It is reckless for Bush to call for an expansion of vouchers when their future is so uncertain and clarity is so close at hand.

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 05:53:47]

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