January 5, 2006

Florida high court strikes down school vouchers

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court
on Thursday struck down a school voucher program that allowed
some students to attend private schools with taxpayers' money,
a key component of Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms.

A Bush campaign promise that became a model for other U.S.
programs, the Florida system allowed parents of students in
chronically failing public schools to use their public school
allocation to offset private school tuition.

The program now serves about 700 students, but critics said
it was an underhand method to fund religious schools.

In a 5-2 decision, the high court ruled the 6-year-old
program undermines a constitutional mandate to provide an
adequate and uniform system of public education by pulling
taxpayer money away from public schools and giving it to
private ones that are not held to the same standards.

While qualified students may still transfer to an
alternative public school, the court's ruling forbids the state
from picking up the tab for a private education.

"Our decision does not deny parents recourse to either
public or private school alternatives to a failing school,"
Chief Justice Barbara Pariente wrote. "Only when the private
school option depends upon public funding is choice limited."


The decision marks a setback for proponents of voucher
schemes following a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that they
did not violate the constitutional separation of church and
state. Despite that ruling, the idea has run into opposition at
local level and only a handful of states now operate voucher

Bush, who in 1999 pushed the voucher plan as part of a
sweeping education reform package, said the provision would
spur public schools to improve while providing parents an
alternative if their school systems performed poorly.

Saying the vast majority of vouchers benefited black and
Hispanic students, Bush said he would continue to do anything
legally within his power to help parents take their children
out of struggling schools.

"This is a sad day for those families," Bush told
reporters. "It is a sad day for accountability in our state."

Critics, including the state's largest teachers' unions,
have called the plan an attempt to deprive already
cash-strapped public school districts of their life blood,
especially in urban and poor neighborhoods that need the
funding most.

"Vouchers that force me to fund church-run schools are not
the answer to address the real problems facing our public
schools," Susan Watson, a parent who was a plaintiff in the
case decided by the high court, said in a statement issued by
the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The ACLU applauded the decision, noting that the state's
constitution explicitly forbids giving public money "directly
or indirectly in aid of any sectarian institution."

"The governor, legislators and those charged with the
responsibility of educating Florida's children should now
forget about vouchers for private and church-run schools and
work for the improvement of neighborhood public schools," said
Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida.

In dissent, Justice Kenneth Bell said the program is
available to only a handful of Florida's 2.5 million students.
Given such small numbers, the financial impact on the state's
$15 billion public school system is negligible, he said.