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Judge throws out
Florida's voucher law

©Associated Press, March 14, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- A state judge Tuesday ruled Florida's school voucher law unconstitutional, throwing out the nation's first statewide voucher program.

“We won it lock, stock and barrel”
—Ron Meyer, one of the lead attorneys challenging the state's voucher system
Fifty-three children attending private schools in Pensacola can finish the school year, Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. ruled. But the state can take no other action to implement the law, Smith said.

"We won it lock, stock and barrel," said Ron Meyer, one of the lead attorneys challenging vouchers for a coalition that included a teacher's union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Florida PTA, the League of Women Voters and a handful of families and educators.

Gov. Jeb Bush was "extremely disappointed by the judge's ruling," spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said.

"Even today there are thousands of students in Florida enrolled in private schools using tens of millions of dollars in public funds," Elizabeth Hirst said, referring to programs that serve children with disabilities and special needs. "The governor will continue to fight for Florida school children and the right of parents to choose the best school for their child."

The decision will be appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal, but lawyers on both sides of the case said it was likely the DCA would be asked to pass the case on to the Florida Supreme Court.

Under Florida's voucher law, students at public schools that earn a failing grade two years out of four can ask for vouchers that use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Only two of Florida's 2,500 public schools -- both elementary schools in Pensacola -- now qualify.

Besides arguing that vouchers violate the state constitution by spending public dollars on private schools, opponents have argued that vouchers violate the separation of church and state when they're used to attend parochial schools.

But that issue hadn't even come up before Smith, who made his decision without considering any evidence, based just on the language of the state constitution. He concluded the law violated the mandate that the state provide a free education through a system of "public schools."

"By providing state funds for some students to obtain a K-12 education through private schools, as an alternative to the high quality education available through the system of free public schools, the legislature has violated the mandate of the Florida Constitution, adopted by the electorate of this state.

"Tax dollars may not be used to send the children of this state to private schools."

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