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Court throws out vouchers

The state high court says voucher schools are not subject to the same regulations that apply to public schools.

Published January 6, 2006

The Florida Supreme Court knocked the wind out of Gov. Jeb Bush's education revamp Thursday, ruling that the private-school voucher program violates the state Constitution's promise of a "uniform system of free public schools."

Watched nationwide, the 5-2 decision topples Opportunity Scholarships, the only statewide voucher program in the country. It also raises doubts about two related voucher programs.

The ruling shatters the biggest stick Bush wielded to boost performance - the ability to use tax dollars to leave a failing public school for a private one.

Vouchers are "one of the most important reasons why we have seen rising student achievement," Bush said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "I think it's a sad day for accountability in our state."

This year, only about 700 of Florida's 2.7-million public school students took advantage of Opportunity Scholarships. None of them are in the Tampa Bay area.

Though the numbers are small, the policy implications have always been huge.

Supporters, including a long line of conservative think tanks and interest groups, say vouchers have motivated struggling public schools to perform better through competition. A couple of recent academic studies, including one by researchers at Harvard University, back up that claim.

But opponents, led by the state's teachers union, say vouchers drain money from public schools - an argument echoed by the Supreme Court majority as well as Democratic candidates for governor. They also say vouchers unfairly malign public schools and violate constitutional restrictions separating church and state.

Thursday's ruling is "a victory for public schools in Florida," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney who argued the case on behalf of the Florida Education Association. "It means that Florida taxpayers will not be forced to pay for (private) schools which are unaccountable."

Filed one day after Bush signed the program into law in 1999, Bush vs. Holmes has been colored ever since by religious and racial overtones. The vast majority of students using Opportunity Scholarships are black or Hispanic, and polls show strong support in minority communities for voucher programs. At the same time, the case has raised thorny questions regarding the constitutionality of sending public money to religious schools, which make up the majority of those accepting vouchers.

For some families, though, vouchers were not policy but personal. Andy Cameron, 55, of Pensacola, whose son Ramon attended a Catholic school for five years, said vouchers enabled his son to get a better education. Ramon was a fourth-grader when a local factory closed and Cameron lost his job. Without a voucher, he couldn't afford to send his son to a private school.

"It gave us a choice, which we didn't have before," Cameron said. "The schools that Ramon was in, before, were in pretty rough condition. The kids didn't even have access to books to take home."

Cameron said he is a Democrat, and disagrees with Bush on some of his policies. "But on the voucher program, I backed him 100 percent," he said.

Lower courts had ruled against the program on religious grounds, but the Supreme Court steered wide of that argument. Instead, a majority found that vouchers violate a state constitutional provision that voters enacted in 1998, for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools."

The justices turned the accountability argument upside down, noting voucher schools are not subject to the same rigorous state regulations that apply to public schools. That, they wrote, violates the constitutional mandate for a "uniform" public school system.

"We recognize that the proponents of vouchers have a strongly held view that students should have choices. Our decision does not deny parents recourse to either public or private school alternatives to a failing school," said the 35-page ruling, authored by Chief Justice Barbara Pariente. "Only when the private school option depends upon public funding is choice limited."

The two dissenting justices, Kenneth Bell and Raoul Cantero, are Bush appointees. In a dissent Bell wrote, they said it was wrong to conclude that public schools are the "exclusive means" for the state to educate every child.

Legal scholars said there are no grounds for Bush to appeal successfully to the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no federal issues involved.

But Bush did not rule out an appeal and vowed to pursue every strategy to keep vouchers alive, including raising money from private sources.

The court decision is "so, so bad," said Barbara Cruz, whose 18-year-old daughter uses a voucher to attend La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami. The court ruling said students currently using Opportunity Scholarships will be able to keep them through the end of the school year. So Cruz's daughter, a senior, won't have to go back.

But Cruz echoed the concerns of other voucher parents, who said their children made better grades and focused more after getting away from public schools they considered overcrowded and unsafe.

"She made the biggest turnaround," Cruz said.

Republican lawmakers are already discussing ways to reconstruct the voucher program and are expected to seek remedies during the legislative session that starts March 7.

"Solutions are imminent," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the House Education Council.

One possibility: Modeling Opportunity Scholarships after a related program, in which businesses get tax credit for donating their state corporate taxes to scholarship funding organizations for vouchers. That program was not directly affected by Thursday's ruling.

Another possibility: a constitutional amendment.

"I don't think any option should be taken off the table," Bush said.

Democrats welcomed the court decision - and a renewed legislative debate.

"The Florida Constitution requires that you take care of your public school system before you start frolicking in private school systems, and clearly, we are not taking care of our public schools adequately," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I think the Republicans need to let go of this fixation with vouchers."

Both Republican candidates for governor, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Attorney General Charlie Crist, criticized the ruling, while both Democratic candidates - U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua - praised it.

Bush would not criticize the court majority that included all four justices chosen by his Democratic predecessor, Lawton Chiles. (The fifth justice, Peggy Quince, was jointly appointed by Chiles and governor-elect Bush in late 1998.)

The decision was also the focus of debate for what it did not say.

Gallagher said the side-stepping of the church-state issue "really leads me to believe it was a results-oriented decision."

Steve Gey, a professor of constitutional law at Florida State University, said it's plausible the court steered clear of the religious issues because they are more controversial - and perhaps tougher to build a majority around.

"Any court doing its job is going to do it this way," he said.

He also dismissed the notion that this was the result of a liberal-leaning court. The ruling "adhered very closely to the text of the Constitution," much like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia - an unabashed conservative - would have, he said.

"Scalia would love it," he said.

- Times staff writers Jeffrey Solochek, Melanie Ave and Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 6, 2006, 01:05:09]

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