State panel turns down school voucher proposal

But state aid to religious organizations moves a step closer to ballot.

Associated Press
Published February 26, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - A proposal designed to restore an unconstitutional school voucher program was rejected Monday by a state panel, but a plan that would lift a constitutional ban on state aid to religious schools got early approval.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission can put state constitutional amendments on the ballot. But it decided against the voucher proposal that also was intended to help create more programs to send students to private schools at public expense, and protect existing ones against court challenges.

The proposal lost on a 5-2 vote of the commission's Governmental Services Committee. Offered by the committee's chairman, Roberto "Bobby" Martinez, it would have made an exception to an existing constitutional provision that requires Florida to have a uniform system of free public schools.

The Florida Supreme Court cited that requirement in striking down the former Gov. Jeb Bush's Opportunity Scholarship voucher program for children from failing public schools. The justices found it in effect set up a separate system of private voucher schools that didn't have to obey state rules.

Martinez, a Miami lawyer who also serves on the State Board of Education, said he also wanted the proposal to protect programs that give vouchers to disabled students, poor children and preschoolers.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, opposes vouchers but wasn't ready to begin celebrating. "I don't think that until the commission ceases to meet I would ever call efforts to re-create voucher programs dead," said union lawyer Ron Meyer.

A proposal that moved a step closer to the ballot would make exceptions to Florida's ban on direct and indirect aid to religious organizations. Besides school vouchers, it would apply to health care and other state programs that use faith-based providers.

The amendment was approved by the Governmental Procedures and Structure Committee and now will be heard by another committee.

The Governmental Services Committee also voted 5-3 for a proposal that would water down class-size reduction limits voters approved in 2002.

The proposal would allow school districts to meet the limits on a school average basis instead of applying them to each classroom. Due to go into effect in the 2010-11 school year, the limits are 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grade and 25 for high school.