Florida School Voucher Ruling Hits States
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about school vouchers, but not everyone's matters as much as Florida's Circuit Court Judge Ralph L. Smith Jr., who struck down the first-ever statewide voucher program this week, sending tremors through states that were considering similar programs.
Most states aren't ready for voucher programs yet, "all Florida will do is make them more hesitant," said Eric Hirsch an education policy expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
In his ruling, Judge Smith wrote that tax dollars can't be used to send students to private schools. "By providing state funds for some students to obtain a K-12 education through private schools, as an alternative to the high-quality education available through the system of free public schools, the legislature has violated the mandate of the Florida Constitution."
Vouchers have been opposed on constitutional grounds generally because of a state's obligation to provide a quality education, as well as on the issue of separation of church and state. Some voucher programs allow students to use public money to attend sectarian schools.
Lawyers representing voucher proponents have said they will appeal the Florida ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Bob Chase of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest education union, welcomed the judge's ruling saying that it "put a stake in the heart of the voucher movement. It sends a strong signal to states across the nation that vouchers are no substitute for a quality public education." But the pro-voucher Institute for Justice's John Kramer said, "The fact is that all three of the state-created choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida are in battle, but alive and serving kids from failing public schools."
A voucher bill to be considered in California would tie the program to school performance as Florida's did, by giving students in chronically failing schools public money to attend private schools.
Kerry Mazzoni, a Democrat and Chair of the California House education committee said the Florida judge's decision will have an impact on the debate this session.
"It provides opponents of vouchers a strong argument that they have not been able to withstand a court challenge," Mazzoni tells stateline.org. Since Democrats, traditionally unfriendly to vouchers, control the California Assembly and governor's mansion, it is likely that any voucher bill will fail, she said.
Vouchers appeal to people who feel that public schools haven't been educating children and some believe that giving students a choice will spur competition and therefore better schools.Most private schools have a full applicant pool to draw from and may be able to offer only one or two seats to voucher students. And Hirsch points out that New Mexico has 89 school districts that would be participating in the voucher program if lawmakers approve it. Of those districts half have no private schools at all.