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School Voucher Plan Struck Down
Florida to Appeal Judge's Ruling

By Sue Anne Pressley and Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 15, 2000; Page A01

MIAMI, March 14—A state judge today struck down as unconstitutional Florida's year-old program of school vouchers, the first statewide system that allows students to escape failing public schools and enroll in private institutions.

The ruling by Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. in Tallahassee directly concerns 53 students who formerly attended two public elementary schools in Pensacola, the only Florida schools that so far have been labeled as failing, but has the potential to affect thousands of the state's estimated 2 million public school students who would otherwise become eligible for vouchers in a few months.

"Tax dollars may not be used to send the children of this state to private schools," Smith ruled. His decision was based on a 1998 amendment that Florida voters added to the state constitution declaring an "efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools" to be "a paramount duty of the state."

The ruling joins the mixed verdicts on voucher programs that state and federal courts have handed down around the country. Last December, a federal judge held a voucher program in Cleveland unconstitutional, but allowed participating students to continue in private schools while his decision is appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

So far the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the issue, but has let three lower court decisions stand--two upholding voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and another prohibiting vouchers for religious schools in Vermont.

In Florida, Smith permitted the Pensacola students to complete the school year in their private schools. The state plans an appeal, either to a state appeals court or Florida's Supreme Court.

"Florida's residents have made it clear they want an efficient, well-funded public school system. This voucher scheme undermined that goal," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped prepare the lawsuit.

The Florida law, which the legislature approved in April 1999, had been championed by Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who expressed his disappointment today with Smith's decision.

"For decades, millions of state dollars have been spent each year to provide private education to children" with disabilities and other special needs, Bush said. "No one has ever claimed that this spending is unconstitutional, yet this opinion clearly suggests that it is under the new constitutional language Florida voters adopted in 1998. In my view, this is a gross distortion of the Florida constitution, and will be reversed by the higher courts."

Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Institute for Justice, which represents the Pensacola voucher students in the case, argued that Smith misinterpreted the state constitution's guarantee of a quality public education.

"To keep these kids in failing schools is turning the constitution on its head," Bolick said. "We believe a good education at a private school fulfills the goals of public education more than a bad education at a public school."

Bolick said the voucher program could continue--and even expand-- because a court decision declaring a Florida law unconstitutional is automatically suspended as soon as the state government appeals.

Under the Florida plan, students at schools that twice receive failing marks on an annual statewide test and other performance measures could use the school district's per pupil expenditure--an "opportunity scholarship" of up to $3,389 a year--to enroll in another public, nonsectarian or religious school. So far, only the Pensacola students have participated, but students at many more schools likely would become eligible when the new school ratings are released in May.

School voucher programs are controversial because they divert funds from public schools and, in the opinion of opponents, violate the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. The Florida lawsuit was filed last June by a coalition of groups including the NAACP, the Florida PTA and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ruling is likely to attract more attention to the issue of school vouchers in the presidential campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) the likely Republican nominee, has proposed tapping the federal Title I program to fund vouchers for disadvantaged students attending failing schools, while Vice President Gore has opposed vouchers in any form.

"This will set Republican leadership and Democrats in stark contrast on the voucher issue during the election cycle, and that's what I think [both sides] want to do," Lynn said.

But vouchers appear to have limited appeal as a campaign issue. A recent bipartisan poll, for instance, concluded that the idea "elicits little energy from the electorate" compared to other education reform proposals.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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