Friday, June 10, 2005

Voucher Battle Heads to Court

Major showdown in Florida this week. I quote: "The Florida program is the first and only statewide voucher program in the nation - the "crown jewel of school choice programs," says Clinton Bolick, head of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix." One can see that the same racial politics as played out here in Texas in the legislature are occurring. There is an uncharacteristic right-wing and minority self-serving coalition. I agree with a commentator below that this effort is a way to circumvent more expensive reforms related to smaller class sizes and raising teachers' salaries. -Angela

The Florida Supreme Court will hear Bush vs. Holmes this week, with many educational and religious issues in the balance.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published June 6, 2005

Call it a culture war showdown.

Competing factions will square off over race, religion and education Tuesday when they argue the school voucher case before the Florida Supreme Court.

At direct issue in Bush vs. Holmes is Florida's Opportunity Scholarships program, created by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 to allow children in failing public schools to attend private schools at state expense. The court's decision, which could come before school starts in August, will immediately affect about 700 children using the vouchers.

But much more is hanging in the balance, including thorny questions about how to improve public schools and where to draw the line between church and state.

Both sides are predicting doomsday if they lose.

If vouchers go down, supporters say a host of other state programs with links to religious organizations could fall, including the wildly popular Bright Futures scholarships for college students and the state's fledgling prekindergarten program.

Meanwhile, voucher opponents say court approval for Opportunity Scholarships would open the door to "universal vouchers" - vouchers for anybody and everybody - leading to the demise of public schools.

In one corner is Bush, a Republican who has never hesitated to push controversial school initiatives. His supporters include a long list of conservative think tanks and legal foundations.

In the other corner: the National Education Association, which is the nation's largest teachers union and a pillar of the Democratic Party. It is backed by a who's who of liberal groups, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress.

Legal experts say the fight is impossible to handicap. Florida's high court rarely deals with church-state issues, so there are few rulings to analyze for patterns. And two of the seven justices are recent appointees.

The court's track record is "so skimpy that anything I or anyone else says is almost purely speculative," says Steve Gey, a professor of constitutional law at Florida State University.

Bush vs. Holmes isn't likely to plow new legal ground nationally. The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned vouchers in 2002. And vouchers remain an issue in Florida only because the state Constitution has different - and some say more restrictive - language than the U.S. Constitution.

But the fight in Florida still has enormous symbolic value.

The Florida program is the first and only statewide voucher program in the nation - the "crown jewel of school choice programs," says Clinton Bolick, head of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix.

To have it struck down, he says, "would be a very stinging defeat."

* * *

Behind the voucher debate are parents like Susan Watson and Mary Jane Soto.

Watson of Pensacola is a plaintiff in Bush vs. Holmes . Her two youngest children attend Pensacola High, where she says they're getting a "fabulous education." Her oldest, a Pensacola High grad, is now at the University of Chicago, a top-tier school.

"I don't want my tax dollars being thrown into the garbage, being thrown into schools that we don't monitor or test," says Watson, a computer technician.

Her fear: That voucher supporters will privatize public schools, leaving a system of mostly Christian schools in their wake. She says she and her children have special reason to worry: They're Jewish.

In Miami, Soto has a different take on vouchers.

She didn't want to send her 16-year-old son, Spencer, to nearby Booker T. Washington High, which earned a D last year after two F's. So she applied to several magnet schools.

Her son wasn't admitted. But thanks to an Opportunity Scholarship, he'll be a junior next year at a Catholic school, Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame.

Opportunity vouchers are offered to students at schools that have earned F grades in two of the past four years. Only 21 schools in the state fit the bill (none in the Tampa Bay area) and only a small percentage of eligible students from those schools are participating.

But those who do are often quick to offer praise.

Students at Curley are "told they can do whatever they want as long as they put their mind to it," says Soto, a computer analyst who says she can't afford private school. "I don't think they get that feeling in other schools."

Soto, who is Catholic, says she and her son didn't choose a school for religious reasons. It's not the school that's benefiting from vouchers, she says.

It's her son.

* * *

The hopes and fears of Watson and Soto echo throughout the legal arguments, which hinge on two sections of the Florida Constitution.

One mandates the state provide a "system of free public schools." The other prohibits state money from being used "in aid of" religion.

Voucher opponents say the Constitution requires the state to support public schools, and public schools alone. In court filings, they say the framers recognized that public schools prepare students to be good citizens because they foster interaction of children from "diverse walks of life."

But voucher supporters say there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the Legislature from taking action to make public schools better. By introducing competition into the system, they say, vouchers have forced public schools to improve, particularly those that serve black and Hispanic students.

"It is the threat of vouchers that holds public school feet to the fire," Bolick says.

Racial dynamics are in play here. So are competing visions of education reform.

Some 95 percent of Opportunity Scholarship recipients are black or Hispanic, and on Tuesday, 2,000 people are expected to attend a provoucher rally in Tallahassee, many of them minorities.

More cynical observers have suggested that provoucher groups are using minorities to leverage universal vouchers. Others say vouchers are a diversion from more expensive initiatives they believe are more likely to help, including better teachers and smaller class sizes.

"There are those of us who believe there is - I won't call it a plot, but a plan - to destroy public schools," says Gerald Bracey, a fellow at the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University who has written extensively about vouchers. "Vouchers are part of that plan."

Groups like the Alliance for School Choice do, in fact, support universal vouchers.

Yet polls consistently show strong support for vouchers among black and Hispanic parents.

That shouldn't be surprising, says Leon Tucker, spokesman for the Washington, D.C., Black Alliance for Educational Options, which is helping to organize the Tallahassee rally.

"These are the families that don't have choice," he says.

* * *

Voucher opponents say the Florida Constitution's wording on church and state is clear and direct: No public money "shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination."

Vouchers enable religious schools to "bring their religious message to children whom they otherwise would be unable to reach," the opponents argue in court filings. "Providing a "Christ-centered and gospel-based education' is, as one school principal testified, "why we exist."'

A trial judge agreed with the opponents. So did the appeals court.

But supporters say vouchers don't aid churches; they aid students and parents. If religion benefits, it's incidental.

The voucher law, they note, prohibits participating schools from forcing students to pray or profess a religious belief.

And they say the Florida Supreme Court has backed similar programs.

In 1970, it sided with a Presbyterian church that operated an elderly group home and wanted to take advantage of a tax exemption for such facilities.

Religious discrimination is at issue, too.

To deny religious schools the same opportunities as other private schools would violate the right to free exercise of religion, voucher supporters say.

Some even assert that religious bias motivated the church-state wording in Florida's Constitution.

At issue are "Blaine amendments," which were added to a number of state constitutions in the 19th century, including Florida's.

Named for Sen. James Blaine of Maine, the amendments were pushed in some states by Protestants who feared the influx of Catholic immigrants and the rise of Catholic schools.

But in other quarters, says Gey, the FSU law professor, amendment supporters were not bigots, but "part of a long history in this country of opposition to government financing of religion."

In Florida, there is no evidence of anti-Catholic bias in the amendment's history, he says. And for voucher supporters to argue otherwise is "a public relations gambit."

Supporters also argue that a ruling against vouchers would "lead to absurd and obviously unintended consequences" - namely, the demise of other state programs that also allow taxpayer money to flow to religious institutions.

They include Florida's two other voucher programs; its Bright Futures scholarships and just-hatched pre-K program; perhaps even state-funded medical care at hospitals with religious ties.

Opponents concede some programs might be at risk, including McKay vouchers for special education students and pre-K.

But they say there is a big difference between fee-for-services transactions, like those involving medical care, and vouchers that help churches push "religious missions."

* * *

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, the voucher battle is unlikely to end.

Prompted by the court case, state Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, said last year that he was considering a constitutional amendment that would make it easier to channel state money to religious schools.

And one political scientist says he wouldn't be surprised if an antivoucher ruling gave conservatives a golden election issue: an out-of-control judiciary.

"They could ride it for another two- or four-year cycle," says University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett.

Bush, in particular, stands to come out ahead, Jewett says. His support for vouchers has cemented his standing with religious conservatives and allowed him to make inroads with minority voters.

Whatever the court decision, Bush can say he tried.

--Ron Matus can be reached at or 727 893-8873.
© Copyright 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved

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