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Controversial School Voucher Plan Goes Before Florida Supreme Court

June 08, 2005|From Reuters

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's highest court heard a challenge to Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher plan Tuesday in a battle watched nationwide over whether taxpayer money could be funneled to private and parochial schools.

The arguments before the Florida Supreme Court involved a six-year legal fight between Bush and critics of a program that provided tax-funded vouchers to students at public schools that failed repeatedly to meet performance standards, the first such statewide program in the United States.

The court did not give a time frame for when it would rule, but school officials requested a decision before the start of the school year in August. The case is being watched by other states considering voucher programs and may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than 700 Florida students use the Opportunity Scholarship Program vouchers to attend private schools, more than half at church-based schools. Lower courts have twice ruled the program unconstitutional, but it has remained in effect during the appeals.

Critics said the program violated the state constitution's separation of church and state and its mandate to provide a free system of high-quality public education.

A provision dating to 1885 says: "No revenue of the state ... shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

"The Florida Constitution means something very specific," John West, a lawyer for voucher opponents, told justices. "It means no funds -- that first word is quite clear -- no revenues shall be taken from the state, directly or indirectly, in aid of sectarian institutions."

Supporters said vouchers threw struggling students and their parents a lifeline when public schools failed to meet their needs. They said Florida already provided funds to private organizations with religious ties, such as nonprofit hospitals.

"There is nothing in the constitution that prohibits the Legislature from funding private programs, any more so than from funding private health programs, environmental programs or anything else the Legislature chooses to do provided that it meets its mandate," said Barry Richard, a lawyer for the Republican governor.

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