- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

A Florida appeals court ruled Monday that a voucher program for students in failing schools violated the state’s constitution because it sent public money to religious institutions. The state court said that a majority of students who participated in the state’s voucher program used the funds to enroll at “sectarian institutions.” And by the court’s interpretation of Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, a clause informally known as the Blaine Amendment, these schools are barred from receiving state aid. The court’s reasoning would apparently conflict with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The Florida voucher program allows any student who attends a failing public school to transfer to a different public school of his choice or to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend a private school of his choosing.

The Florida Constitution says that “the education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.” It goes on to promise “adequate provision” for each child to receive a “high quality education.” If a school is identified as failing, has the state lived up to its own mandate?

When Gov. Jeb Bush signed the first statewide vouchers law in the nation in 1999, critics immediately filed suit, saying that the law violated a provision of the state constitution that prohibits the use of public dollars for private institutions. The courts ultimately — and rightfully — ruled this was poor logic.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Ohio voucher program, in which a majority of the students attended Catholic schools in Cleveland, did not violate the separation of church and state because parents had a sufficient range of secular and religious schools to choose among. Last February the Supreme Court also ruled that the state of Washington could deny scholarship funds to a theology student because the state has no need to be involved directly in the training of clergy. But in Florida, these students are simply looking for a basic education. Voucher students may be taught religion as part of their studies, but they may not be forced to pray, worship or profess a religious belief. The Florida case is more than an issue of religion. It involves the rights to opportunity and choice.

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