Jeb Bush and His Cronies Have Provoked a Church-State Showdown in Florida with National Ramifications

Article excerpt

Dade County, Fla., is home to almost 200 religious schools.

According to the Florida Department of Education's data from the 2006-2007 school year, an array of denominations and faith perspectives is represented. Forty-five schools are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, but many other spiritual traditions answered the state roll call.

All Angels Academy is Episcopalian, Christ Fellowship Academy is Baptist, Clara Mohammed School of Miami is Islamic, Greater Miami Hebrew Academy is Jewish, World Mission of Jesus Christ Christian is non-denominational, New Testament Church of Transfiguration School is Pentecostal and Glory of God Christian School is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Some are well-established and fully accredited with a qualified teaching staff and a tradition of educational excellence. Others are small, poorly equipped and devoted to religious indoctrination, not academic accomplishment.

If former Gov. Jeb Bush and his allies have their way, however, all of these schools--and private academies like them around the state--will soon be eligible for massive new streams of public funding, courtesy of the state's taxpayers.

Bush has engineered onto the November ballot two initiatives that would eliminate the state constitution's strict church-state separation provisions, mandate funding of religion and water down language requiring a quality public school system.

For advocates of church-state separation and strong public schools, it's a political showdown with breath-taking possible consequences.

How did the Sunshine State find itself in this predicament? It's the culmination of a convoluted plot.

In 1999, Bush pushed through the legislature an "Opportunity Scholarship Program" that gave students in "failing" public schools state funding-for tuition at religious and other private academies. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and allied groups immediately challenged the voucher scheme in state court.

After years of legal wrangling, the Florida Supreme Court finally struck down the program in January 2006. The 5-2 court majority said vouchers violated a provision of the state constitution requiring a uniform system of free public schools.

Bush, an ardent advocate of "faith-based" solutions to public problems, was livid and vowed to press for a constitutional amendment. But he found more difficulty ill the state legislature than expected. In May 2006, the proposed constitutional amendment fell short by one vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, despite a lot of hardball political pressure from the governor and his allies.

Bush then reached for Plan B. He left office in January 2007, but he and his top advisers crafted a back-door maneuver to revise the state constitution and advance vouchers. They decide to stack the state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

The Commission a 25-member panel created only once every 20 years, is supposed to study the state's tax code, revenue needs and expenditures and find ways to address financial problems. It has the power, by a two-thirds vote, to place initiatives directly on the ballot, bypassing the legislature and other governmental checks and balances.

Commission members are appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker. (Four members serve ex officio and have no voting rights on the body.)

To achieve his goals, Bush arranged with Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint Greg Turbeville, a former Bush policy director, and other voucher advocates to the Commission. House Speaker Marco Rubio (R-Miami/Dade) helped the scheme along by appointing Bush education adviser Patricia Levesque and other voucher fans.

Levesque was controversial as Bush's education adviser. She is a graduate of Bob Jones University, the arch-fundamentalist South Carolina school notorious for its racial and religious intolerance. …