by Jackie Hallifax
The Associated Press
January 25, 2005
TALLAHASSEE · Backed by several dozen students on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court, a West Palm Beach minister spoke out Monday in defense of state laws that let parents send their children to private schools on state vouchers or scholarships.
Florida's high court is considering the constitutionality of Florida's original voucher program. Bishop Harold Ray and his supporters say a ruling against the 1999 law would put in jeopardy several other programs that are used by thousands of students, including the state's forthcoming pre-kindergarten program.
"School choice is rapidly becoming the pre-eminent civil right of the 21st century," said Ray, a senior pastor at Redemptive Life Fellowship and a senior administrator at Redemptive Life Academy.
Voucher opponents said Ray and his backers are resorting to scare tactics. Voucher opponents include the state's teachers union, the Florida PTA, the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"This lawsuit is not to destroy everything," said Ruth Holmes, a retired Panhandle teacher.
The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled oral arguments in the case, which came to it after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in November that the law violates the church-state separation provision of the Florida Constitution. It forbids the state from using tax dollars to aid any church, sect or religious denomination.
Nearly 700 children attend private schools on state vouchers under the original law, which is triggered when a public school earns failing grades from the state two years out of four. More than half the students attend religious schools; the law specifies that students cannot be forced to pray or profess a religious belief.
Although the law at issue in the lawsuit is Florida's first school voucher program, it is dwarfed by later voucher programs.
Nearly 14,000 students attend private schools on McKay scholarships, which were created for children with disabilities, and another 10,000 students attend private schools on scholarships granted by businesses that get tax credits from the state.
Voucher supporters warn that programs such as these, as well as the popular Bright Futures college scholarship and the pre-kindergarten law, are at risk if the Florida Supreme Court upholds the appellate ruling.
Parents who spoke Monday said they wanted to send their children to private schools because of smaller class sizes, greater physical safety and academic content.
Micelle Emery, a Castleberry mother who wants to send her youngest to a Christian preschool, said she wanted her children to be taught creationism as an alternative theory to evolution.
"Why should I lose my rights to send my children to a school that promotes the values, the level of education and the safety that are important to me simply because that school is religious?" Emery asked.