School Vouchers: Florida Propositions #7 & #9

You may remember that last week we told you that proposed constitutional amendments 7 and 9 on the November ballot must be viewed in concert in order to understand the magnitude of the radical change that is afoot. You will hear a lot over the next few months about the phony "65% measure" that will supposedly ensure that more dollars make it to the classroom, but that's just the sugar to help you swallow the poison: private/parochial school vouchers.

The members of Florida's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC) are insulting the intelligence of voters by not even mentioning the word "vouchers" in proposed amendment 9, when that's exactly what it is all about. The objective is to get voters to approve vouchers without knowing that is what they are doing. The Florida Supreme Court, siding with the ACLU and our public education and church/state separation allies in the 2006 case of Bush v. Holmes, struck down then-Governor Jeb Bush's "Opportunity Scholarship" voucher program as unconstitutional. The response by former Gov. Bush and his friends: change the Florida Constitution. But in order to resuscitate school vouchers, the proposals go so far as to mandate government funding of religious "entities" and undermine the state's commitment to public schools.

The proposal, which will appear on the ballot under the label "Requiring 65 Percent of School Funding For Classroom Instruction; State's Duty For Children's Education," uses the 65% funding measure as a decoy -- after all, who would be against spending in the classroom? What the proposal doesn't do is define "classroom instruction" and it overlooks that most schools in Florida already spend over 65% of their finances in the classroom.

The danger in this proposed amendment is that the new language authorizes the Legislature to create two parallel education systems: a public school system operating under state standards, and a system of unaccountable private and parochial schools supported by publicly funded vouchers that operate without a state-approved curriculum, without certified teachers, without state standards for instructional materials and without any mandated student achievement.

Proposed amendments 7 & 9 are inextricably linked. Taken together they are the most serious threats to public education and separation of church and state in Florida's history.
~ Howard Simon, Executive Director, ACLU of Florida

We must examine how proposed amendments 7 and 9 work together to appreciate both the extent to which this issue is about school vouchers, and just how radical their effect would be. The intent of proposed amendment 9 is to amend the portion of the constitution that was used by the Florida Supreme Court to strike down Bush's voucher program (namely, the requirement that the state maintain a system of "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality . . . free public schools"). The intent of proposed amendment 7 is to preemptively strip the "no aid to religion" provision from the Florida Constitution since that provision might be used in the future to strike down a voucher program even if the state no longer has a constitutional commitment to maintain a uniform system of public schools.

If proposed amendment 9 passes proponents still need proposed amendment 7 in order to protect private/parochial school vouchers from future challenges. And proposed amendment 7 goes well beyond vouchers to essentially mandate government-funded religious programs.

The proposal Floridians will vote on this November is a fundamental departure from the contractual relationship between government and religiously affiliated charities that have served the needy for decades. Religiously affiliated charitable organizations such as Catholic adoption agencies, Lutheran Refugee Relief, Jewish Vocational Services and many others, have served the needs of the community without proselytizing and without discriminating in whom they hire and serve, and do not have as their primary purpose or effect the advancement of religion.

The argument for repeal of the traditional "no aid to religion" provision at the TBRC was based on the lie that the "no aid to religion" requirement threatens to shut down numerous religiously affiliated charitable institutions from schools to hospitals. But government contracts that provide services to the needy have not been and are not threatened by a requirement that government funds not be used to support religious programs or institutions.

Backers of proposed amendment 7 want government funding while maintaining the right to require participation in religious activities, and the right to restrict services and hiring on religious (and possibly other) grounds. We must not allow this type of discrimination to be enshrined in the Florida Constitution.

7 & 9 in the Courts

Proposed constitutional amendments 7 and 9 were placed on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC) -- the membership of which consisted mostly of lobbyists, former members of the Jeb Bush Administration and current staff members of Bush's foundation. A lawsuit, filed in the Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, challenges the TBRC actions as beyond the scope of their authority -- using the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission as a vehicle for ideological social policy objectives, as private school vouchers and government funding of religious organizations was an abuse of power.

The lawsuit, Ford v. Browning, was filed principally by the Florida Education Association (FEA), though the ACLU (both the Florida Affiliate and the National ACLU Program on Religion and Belief) are co-counsel along with other religious liberty and public education defenders. Final oral arguments on our motion for summary judgment will be heard on August 4th. However, we cannot rely on the courts. We must proceed to build a campaign on the assumption that proposed amendments 7 and 9 will appear on the November ballot.

There is much work to be done, and we hope you will join us in protecting our constitution from the attacks facing us on November 4th.

Thank you for your continued support!