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    Vouchers win a round, face another test

    An appeals court ruling supporting the use of public money is left intact; the issue of church-state separation heads to trial.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY and TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


    Florida's school voucher law got a boost from the state's highest court Wednesday when the justices refused to review an appeals court decision upholding the use of public dollars in private schools.

    Now the case heads back to the trial court on another issue. Voucher opponents will try to convince the court that the program is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

    "It's a setback, but it is certainly not anything fatal," said Ron Meyer, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit challenging vouchers.

    The Florida Supreme Court left in place an October ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal, which said the state could use public dollars to pay to send children to private schools.

    Even as they celebrated the 4-1 ruling, voucher advocates acknowledged that the case is far from over.

    "I regret the fact that we must continue to spend time and money in litigation that would be better spent educating our children," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed the voucher plan during his first year in office. "Nonetheless, I look forward to returning to the trial court to prove once and for all that the Opportunity Scholarship Program complies fully with the U.S. and Florida constitutions."

    The case has drawn interest nationally, since Florida still has the nation's only statewide school voucher program. The program has inspired debate among educators interested in school reform and prompted researchers to study whether the threat of vouchers spurs improvement in schools.

    The original program -- for children from chronically failing schools -- involves only 51 schoolchildren in Pensacola, who are now close to completing their second year in private school. A separate voucher program for disabled children was created this school year and includes more than 1,000 disabled children. Two separate bills now under consideration in the Legislature would provide vouchers to even more children.

    Voucher opponents had expected the issue of separation of church and state to be the heart of the case. They won an early victory in March 2000 on a different issue, when Leon Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. said the program violated the state Constitution by providing tax dollars for use in private schools.

    In October, the appeals court overturned Smith and validated the program. And now the Florida Supreme Court has agreed with the appeals court and left that ruling in place.

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

    Recent coverage

    Appeal court finds school voucher law constitutional (October 4, 2000)

    School voucher program voided (March 15, 2000)

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