Voucher plan moves forward as prayer bill is introduced in Florida Legislature

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

As one Florida House committee easily approved a measure to provide government funds for students to attend private schools, another group of House members introduced a public school prayer bill.

Last week, a voucher plan contained in Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's “A+ for education” initiative was approved by the House Select Committee on Transforming Florida Schools. The measure, called Opportunity Scholarships, would provide about $4,000 for each poor student in any failing public school statewide to attend private religious schools of his or her choosing.

At a hearing before the committee last month, the measure was attacked by state and national civil rights groups as a violation of the separation of church and state. Lisa Versaci, director of the Florida People for the American Way, told the committee the Bush plan was a “sham” that contained no assurances that scholarship students would not be unconstitutionally exposed to pervasively religious education.

After the 16-8 vote in favor of the voucher plan, state Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a supporter of the Bush plan, said “inner-city children from Hialeah and Miami to Pensacola will have a chance to succeed.” When Bush introduced details of his “A+ plan” before the start of the current legislative session, he said the voucher measure was needed to help poor children escape “chronically failing” schools.

The voucher proposal is on a legislative fast track. Larry Spalding, legislative staff counsel for the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill was likely to be approved by the entire House next week.

“I think the Republican Party is pretty much holding firm on this plan,” Spalding said. “And from what we can see, this thing will pass on both sides of the Legislature.”

Spalding says the Florida ACLU is firm in its belief that the measure won't pass constitutional muster. The measure permits state government to fund religious education and “we will pursue litigation” if it passes, he said.

Also last week, a group of House lawmakers, including Diaz de la Portilla, introduced a prayer bill that would grant school districts statewide the power to permit students to deliver messages or prayers at events that they are not required to attend.

“Such message may not exceed 2 minutes in length and may include, but is not limited to, an invocation, prayer, poetry, or inspirational thought,” the bill states. “The purpose of this act is to allow the students to participate and direct their own message without monitoring or review by school officials.”

Spalding said the ACLU was also concerned about the prayer bill. He noted that the Legislature passed a similar one several years ago, but the late Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it.

“I think at this point the prayer bill appears to open the door to school prayer and we will certainly track the bill and in all probability testify against it,” he said.