By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006
The Florida Supreme Court yesterday struck down a statewide education voucher system that uses taxpayer money to fund children attending private schools, energizing the national debate once more.
The ruling will have no direct impact on programs nationwide, but proponents and opponents acknowledged that states will probably look closely at their systems to ensure they are in sync with state laws. In a 5 to 2 ruling, the court said that Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program -- the nation's first statewide program, serving about 700 kids -- is illegal under Florida's constitution because it sets up an "alternative system" not accountable to the state.
"The diversion of money not only reduces public funds for a public education but also uses public funds to provide an alternative education in private schools that are not subject to the 'uniformity' requirements for public schools," the ruling stated.
In a 2002 landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed Cleveland's voucher system, rejecting the argument that the program violated the First Amendment's requirement of the separation of church and state.
Florida voucher opponents had also argued that the program illegally gave public money for parochial education, but the state Supreme Court did not address that issue.
Sally Sacher, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund, who administers the D.C. program, which is federal, said the ruling will not affect the 1,700 children who participate in Washington.
The ruling was a setback for Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who had heralded the program. "I think it is a sad day for accountability in our state," he said at a news conference.
Voucher proponents said they will examine options for continuing the program, such as amending Florida's constitution or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Clark Neily, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, which represented voucher proponents in the suit, predicted the ruling will have limited impact. "It's embarrassingly shallow," he said. "This is just one battle in a bigger war. . . . Every parent should be able to chose where their kids go to school, regardless of the money they have. We will continue to fight for that principle."
Ronald G. Meyer, the lead attorney representing the Florida Education Association against the program, countered that the ruling is broad enough to alarm other states.
"Most states have similar requirements," he said. "The fact is, this is the most significant decision on Florida public education to arise in years."