- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A lawsuit is aiming to strip from Florida‘s November ballot two school voucher- related initiatives that critics say

would hurt public schools but supporters say would preserve faith-based programs partially funded by the state.

Florida public school teachers, administrators and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, among others, have filed the lawsuit in opposition to school-choice proponents and allies of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican and President Bush‘s brother.

“These dangerous proposals have no business being on the ballot,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose vice president is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Jeb Bush and his cronies are trying to pull a fast one, and we cannot let him get away with it.”

Mr. Lynn said the proposals “open the door” to school vouchers and if they’re enacted “the public school system will be hurt and taxpayers will be forced to support religious schools of all kinds.”

The ballot proposals in question would make changes to two specific parts of the state constitution that Florida courts cited in striking down Jeb Bush’s voucher program in 2004 and 2006.

One initiative would strike from the constitution language that bans any state money from flowing directly or indirectly to aid a religious denomination, sect, church or sectarian institution. The Florida District Court of Appeals cited this when it struck down Jeb Bush’s voucher program in 2004.

The other proposal would clarify that a section of Florida’s constitution requiring a “uniform” system of public schools is a “minimum” threshold and does not prohibit public funds from going to private school alternatives. The Florida Supreme Court cited the uniformity clause when it struck down the Bush voucher program in 2006.

The initiatives were placed on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a constitutionally mandated group appointed by state leaders that meets every 20 years to consider tax and budget changes.

The lawsuit charges that the commission exceeded its constitutional authority by placing the measures on November’s ballot, according court papers filed Friday. The named defendant is Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

One of the proposals was sponsored by commission member Patricia Levesque, a former top education aide to Jeb Bush and executive director of his education group Foundation for Florida’s Future. The other was advanced by commission member Greg Turbeville, a lobbyist and former aide to Jeb Bush and Florida’s current governor, Charlie Crist, a Republican.

Kristy Campbell, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said Mr. Bush “is hopeful [the initiatives will] pass in November” and “believes that Florida voters have the opportunity to vote on amendments that will significantly improve the quality of education.”

“It’s disappointing that teachers unions are going to such great lengths to prevent that from happening,” she said.

She said that, contrary to what opponents claim, the measures are designed to make sure that religious groups can continue applying for state grants and delivering crucial services to Floridians.

Since the Florida courts struck down the voucher program, other longstanding faith-based programs are at risk of being challenged on the same grounds, including a religiously affiliated prison program that receives state funds, Ms. Campbell said. “These amendments protect programs like that.”

The Florida Constitution’s ban on state aid to religious groups reflects a broader issue since similar provisions are found in many state constitutions. President Bush called on states to remove these provisions when he spoke at an April summit to help inner-city religiously affiliated schools that are struggling financially.

The no-aid provisions were added to state constitutions in the 1800s and are often referred to as “Blaine amendments,” after a U.S. congressman who failed to get similar language approved at the federal level in 1875.

Proponents of school choice have said Blaine amendments were crafted to codify anti-Catholic bigotry and are being used today to block vouchers.

Meanwhile, the Florida fight rages on. Mr. Turbeville said both of the Florida ballot proposals deal with money and the budget so the state commission “had clear authority” to address them. Florida voters will vote for the proposals if given the chance, he added. Opponents are “doing everything in their power to prevent Florida voters from supporting good education policy,” he said.

But opponents said the initiatives are misleading and were wrongly placed on the ballot.

“These amendments don’t deal with taxation and the state budgetary process,” said Ron Meyer, lead attorney who filed the lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court.

“The courts should not allow this to happen,” agreed Mr. Lynn.

The lawsuit was filed by a group that includes leaders of the Florida School Boards Association and Florida Association of School Administrators. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and People For the American Way are providing support.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voiced its support for the suit as well.

“Legal issues aside, it’s disappointing to once again be distracted by the false promise of private school vouchers when our energies should be directed toward effective strategies known to improve public schools, which are attended by the vast majority of students,” said AFT President Edward J. McElroy.

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