Florida school-aid bill looks like religious education to some

Thursday, February 18, 1999

Gov. Jeb Bush...
Gov. Jeb Bush
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush calls his public school proposal an “A+ plan for education,” but a civil liberties group calls it religious education in disguise.

An eight-page summary of the bill, which is set to be introduced next week in the Florida Legislature, states that “parents of students attending failing schools may receive a state-funded scholarship for their child to attend a public or private school of their choice.” The summary says this plan would save the state and school districts money.

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has called Bush's plan a disguised effort to fund the state's private religious schools. Larry Helm Spalding, legislative staff counsel for the Florida ACLU, said that Bush's bill had a strong chance of being passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. “The Florida Legislature was going to pass a voucher plan anyway, but former Gov. Lawton Chiles made it known he would veto it,” Spalding said. “What the lawmakers did was just wait until a Republican governor was elected.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, said his group would challenge any law that permitted government funds to be used in private religious schools.

“No effort to disguise vouchers by the use of benign-sounding terms like 'opportunity scholarships' can hide the fact that this is a transfer of tax dollars to private schools, most of which are religious schools,” Simon said.

Spalding said that regardless of the wording of Bush's education plan, it would ultimately fail because of the state Constitution. “We have a much stronger constitutional provision than virtually all other states” that bars the use of public funds for religious institutions, he said.

The Florida Constitution states: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, which offered state-funded vouchers for students to attend private religious schools.

The Wisconsin high court in Jackson v. Benson ruled that the city voucher program did not violate the First Amendment's establishment clause or a more strictly worded provision of the Wisconsin Constitution.

A clause in the Wisconsin Constitution states that no money shall “be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.” Judge Donald Steinmetz, writing for the majority, said that the Wisconsin clause could not “be read as requiring that some shadow of incidental benefit to a church-related institution brings a state grant or contract to purchase within the prohibition of the section.”

In a column published Feb. 15 in the Tampa Tribune, Bush defended his education plan, saying that no “child should be forced to attend a school that is chronically failing to provide him or her with a quality education.” Bush, moreover, wrote that private schools choosing to accept opportunity scholarships, “must accept all students who apply [and] must meet applicable public safety standards.”