Strike 2 against School Vouchers; Taxpayer Funds Can't Be Used for Vouchers for Religious Schools, Appeals Court Says

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Byline: BETH KORMANIK and J. TAYLOR RUSHING, The Times-Union

Florida may not spend taxpayer dollars to send children to religious schools, a state appeals court ruled Monday, dealing another blow to Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher program.

The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates a section of the Florida Constitution that bars public money from going to religious institutions. The 2-1 ruling echoed a 2002 trial court decision against the voucher program. The case now moves to the state Supreme Court.

The decision struck down the voucher program, which students use to attend both religious and non-religious private schools. It affects seven counties, including Duval, that have students who use vouchers to attend private schools. The 732 students statewide using vouchers can continue to use them this school year.

Voucher opponents hailed the decision while Bush said it left him "disappointed."

The voucher program is a key component of Bush's school reform plans but has faced opposition since it became law. Students at schools that earn two failing grades in four years from the state can use vouchers to attend private schools or transfer to better-performing public schools. Religious schools that accept public schoolchildren may not force the students to pray, worship or accept their beliefs.

The vouchers program is aimed at giving more educational choices to low-income parents and children, who otherwise might not be able to leave troubled public schools. Last year the state awarded $2.5 million in Opportunity Scholarships.

The Florida Education Association and a coalition of groups filed the lawsuit in 1999, arguing that the vouchers program is unconstitutional and that it strips public schools of students and much-needed money.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said in a statement that Monday's decision was "a triumph for public schools and taxpayers."

"Both the circuit court and now the appellate court have ruled against this drain on public schools," Ford said in the statement. "This ruling should go a long way toward stopping the financial abuses by some of the schools that have been accepting vouchers."

The most recent scandal involving vouchers involved a Polk County Christian school that accepted vouchers for students who no longer attended the school.

Bush and Education Commissioner Jim Horne both vowed to appeal and said a similar adverse decision by the Supreme Court could threaten other scholarship programs or even Medicaid funding to hospitals with religious ties.

Bush said there probably would not be a federal appeal beyond the Florida Supreme Court -- but he rejected calls from voucher opponents to halt any current expansion of the program in light of Monday's ruling.

"I just believe in the validity of this concept," the governor told reporters in Tallahassee. "I didn't spring it on people by surprise. I ran on it as a candidate for governor. I took my chances on what used to be a pretty provocative idea . . . And I don't get any comments other than 'Thank you for allowing me to make a choice that I would be able to have.' "

Horne said Monday's ruling was disappointing but not totally unexpected.

"We are on the right side of the issue," Horne said. "Providing choice to parents is the morally right thing to do, and the public school system is getting better because of it. I think one has to balance us against the good, and good outweighs and convenience for the court system. We expect to prevail."

Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, whose district includes many schools considered substandard by the state, said the ruling vindicates voucher opponents who have long argued the program is too vulnerable to fraud and abuse.

"Hallelujah, what a blessing," Hill said. "This is a great victory for those of us who work for and advocate for public education. …