Fla. high court nixes school vouchers

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to Gov. Jeb Bush’s highly touted state-sanctioned school voucher program Jan. 5, with a 5-2 majority declaring it unconstitutional.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Pariente said in her opinion that the voucher program “diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.”

Florida’s constitution recognizes public schools as the only mechanism for educating children. The governor’s program would have been the first statewide school voucher program in the nation.

The court’s decision rejected a Florida law, adopted in 1999, which provided that students at public schools who failed to earn a passing grade from the state for two out of four years would become eligible for school vouchers accepted by private schools.

The Florida Education Association (FEA), the union representing the state’s public school teachers, said in a statement on its web site, “Six years ago, when Gov. Jeb Bush first pushed a very limited voucher program through the Legislature, there were many signs that we would see this day. Plenty of people warned that the governor’s approach was unconstitutional. And those warnings didn’t come just from those who opposed vouchers. The legislative staff that first worked on the original voucher bill noted that the measure had serious constitutional questions. Faced with a bevy of warnings about vouchers, don’t you think the governor would have proceeded cautiously?”

“That’s not the direction the governor chose,” the FEA statement noted. “He worked to increase the number of voucher programs and the number of students who would be impacted when the Supreme Court finally reached its inevitable decision. So, instead of a limited voucher program, there are more than 27,000 students attending private, mostly religious, schools on the taxpayer’s dime.”

The teachers’ union continued, “More than $400 million has already been spent on vouchers in Florida — and that’s just payments for students to attend private schools. That figure doesn’t include money spent in the legal defense of vouchers, promoting vouchers or the cost of setting up a parallel school system to administer vouchers within the state Department of Education.” The FEA called it “a reckless strategy” by the governor, “meant to cause the most chaos when the court finally handed down its ruling,” and warned that he is likely to use “further shenanigans” try to impose vouchers.

Also opposing the voucher program were the Florida Parent and Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the program. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, is in his final term as Florida’s governor and has been promoted in some circles as a future nominee for the White House.