- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

Any time a child is robbed of a safe and improved education, it is lamentable. But when a Florida circuit court judge struck down the state's new scholarship program last week, he compromised the future of dozens of children attending improved schools through the program.

Consider the facts: Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's "A Plus Plan for Education," allows students in failing schools maximum options. It gives more state assistance to failing schools while demanding they meet higher standards. If they don't measure up for two years in a four-year period, students can either transfer to a public school graded "C" or better, or the child can attend a private school with a state-funded scholarship in the amount the students would receive for public education about $3,400.

This is where the American Civil Liberties Union and the teachers unions get upset. This arrangement not only violates the First Amendment's separation of church-and-state clause, they say, but it violates the Florida Constitution's mandate to provide a "high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education."

This was apparently enough evidence for Leon County Circuit Court Judge L. Ralph Smith. No matter that two Pensacola, Fla., schools aren't able to provide that high quality education, and that Mr. Bush's program has provided an additional $750 million last year and $720 this year to help public schools improve. No matter that the 53 students from those failing schools using the vouchers for private schools (the 85 who transferred to public schools won't be affected) may have to change schools yet again next year. And no matter that it has been suggested that Mr. Smith remove himself from the case because his son was said to have been engaged to the daughter of a top official of the Florida Education Association/United (FEA) the lead plaintiff in one of the two lawsuits seeking to stop the scholarships from being used in private schools.

Mr. Smith did not respond to the request, and now Carrie Carborne, the daughter of FEA official Jack Carborne, has produced an affidavit saying she's not engaged. "We have affidavits from people saying that as late as March 1, she was saying she was engaged to this man, but now she's saying she isn't," said Matthew Berry, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which supports Florida's program in this case.

Regardless of whether the judge was influenced by bias or not, he owes it to the children to hear the state of Florida's evidence for a program that could give up to 60,000 students the chance to have better education next year. "This is probably the worst day of our lives," said Tracy Richardson, whose 8-year-old daughter Khaliah has been attending a Montessori school with the scholarship. "To send her back to the failing public schools could ruin any chance she has," she said.

Khaliah shouldn't have to take that risk, and neither should her classmates. Florida's children deserve a second chance. Let's hope state courts give it to them.

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