Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Justices Hear Arguments in School Voucher Rift; Diversion of Funds from Public Schools and Religious Issues at Heart of Dispute

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Justices Hear Arguments in School Voucher Rift; Diversion of Funds from Public Schools and Religious Issues at Heart of Dispute

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- A legal last word over the nation's first school vouchers began Tuesday as the Florida Supreme Court began considering the constitutionality of the state program.

Justices convened to hear oral arguments over the Opportunity Scholarship program, a centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education agenda but a lightning rod for controversy since he signed it into law six years ago.

About 700 students in Florida use an Opportunity voucher to attend a private school, as allowed if their public school gets failing grades from the state at least twice in a four-year period. Fifty-eight percent of those students are using them to attend religious schools.

The legal fight over the program centers on whether public money is inappropriately aiding religious institutions and whether the program shortchanges public education by siphoning money from it -- both possible violations of the Florida constitution. Several lower courts have endorsed those arguments, ruling against the program but allowing it to continue during the appellate process.

No decision is expected for months. But justices Tuesday offered a hint at their concerns, centering less on the religious issue than the second question of whether vouchers unconstitutionally divert money from public education.

"This money is not an additional amount of money that is being appropriated," said Justice Charles Wells. "This is money that is coming dollar-for-dollar out of the money that would otherwise be for the uniform system of public schools."

Attorneys for the voucher program argued that the state can lawfully provide private education funding but that the program has not interfered with the state's obligation to provide public education anyway. They also argued that the Legislature has the sole authority to determine how much state money is allocated to private versus public schools. …

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