- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Florida's new school-voucher law is unconstitutional and must stop, a state judge ruled yesterday.
"Tax dollars may not be used to send the children of this state to a private school as provided by the Opportunity Scholarship Program," Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. said in his ruling.
Florida's voucher program is the first statewide program to let children in certified-failing public schools to attend private schools with taxpayer dollars.
The decision will be appealed to Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal, but could pass quickly to the state Supreme Court, lawyers said.
Judge Smith's ruling did not address whether the Florida statute violated the U.S. Constitution. If the case evolves into a First Amendment issue, it could go to the U.S. Supreme Court, "but we're a long ways from that today," said Matthew Berry, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which helped Florida defend itself in the suit.
In his ruling, which he wrote without hearing evidence, Judge Smith said that the Florida scholarship program violated the constitutional 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 the state," Judge Smith wrote.
The 53 children attending private schools in Pensacola can finish the school year, Judge Smith said.
But Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other defendants "are enjoined from taking any further measures to implement the private-school tuition program," Judge Smith wrote.
"This is the first inning of a long, drawn-out legal battle," Mr. Bush said yesterday, promising a "vigorous" fight in the appellate courts.
The Florida ruling is the first to strike down the use of public funds for private schools on the basis of guarantees under a state constitution. The Wisconsin and Ohio supreme courts have said city voucher programs in those states are constitutional.
Opponents of Florida's voucher law praised yesterday's decision.
"We won it lock, stock and barrel," said Ronald G. Meyer, a Tallahassee, Fla., attorney who helped lead the challenge.
"Parents and the public don't want vouchers; they want good public schools," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who praised Judge Smith's decision as "a sensible balance."
"This ruling puts a stake in the heart of the voucher movement," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. "It sends a strong signal to states across the nation that vouchers are no substitute for a quality public education."
Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice called the ruling "absurd and unprecedented."
"The public schools have failed these youngsters and the private schools fulfill the constitutional guarantee of a high-quality public education," he said.
Mr. Bolick's group quoted Tracey Richardson, whose 8-year-old daughter attends a Montessori school with a scholarship, as saying: "This is probably the worst day of our lives. To send her back to failing public schools could ruin any chance she has."
Mr. Bolick and Mr. Berry also complained that Judge Smith's ruling was "almost verbatim" from a proposed order by the plaintiffs.
"Given that the unions essentially authored this opinion, it is about as bad and self-serving as it gets," said Mr. Bolick.
The Florida scholarship program, which began in September, creates $4,000 scholarships for children who attend public schools that have been certified as failures.
The children can use the scholarships to attend a school of their choice, including private or parochial schools.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the expected Republican presidential nominee, has cited the program as a model for possible national use.
Vice President Al Gore, his likely opponent, has said shifting money from public schools to private schools is a "very dangerous development." "Most" voucher programs, he said, are "just fraudulent."
Only two elementary schools, both in Pensacola, have been graded as academic failures. Fifty-three children from these schools used their scholarships for private schools, while 85 children used them to go to other public schools.
Opponents of the law included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Florida PTA, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Proponents of the law include Miami-based Floridians for School Choice and the Urban League of Greater Miami.

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