Florida High Court Strikes Down State’s School Voucher Plan

Florida’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s voucher program Jan. 5, declaring the scheme a violation of state constitutional provisions.

The Florida high court, voting 5-2, struck down the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” holding that it violates a section of the Florida Constitution requiring a uniform system of free public schools.

Florida legislators passed the voucher law in 1999 at the behest of Gov. Jeb Bush. The program provides vouchers for private school tuition for students enrolled in public schools deemed “failing.” More than half of the participating private schools in the voucher plan are religious.

Immediately after the plan’s inception, Americans United and its allies in the public education and civil liberties communities brought litigation to stop the program. Florida state courts repeatedly struck down the voucher scheme in the Bush v. Holmes case.  

Americans United and other voucher opponents asserted that the scheme ran afoul of the “uniform public schools” provision of the Florida Constitution, as well as its church-state separation provisions. Although lower state courts cited the church-state provisions as another obstacle, the Florida Supreme Court did not rule on that subject, saying it was unnecessary to address that issue since the plan was unconstitutional under the “uniform” provision.

In its decision, the Florida high court noted that parents retain the right to educate their children as they see fit.

“Our decision does not deny parents recourse to either public or private school alternatives to a failing school,” declared the court majority. “Only when the private school option depends upon public funding is choice limited.”

Americans United hailed the decision.

“This is an important victory for public education and church-state separation,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Now the state legislature can devote its attention to improving public education rather than subsidizing religious and other private schools. The children of Florida deserve the very best public schools the state can provide. Taxpayer dollars should be spent in public schools, not private religious academies.”

Bush and top Republicans have refused to concede defeat. The day after the ruling, Bush vowed to pursue a state constitutional amendment or expand a separate private-school aid program in Florida that gives corporations tax breaks for funding vouchers.

“It’s way too early to write the obituary for opportunity scholarships in Florida,” Senate President Tom Lee told the Orlando Sentinel. “But we’ve got to have some time to deliberate what step to take next.”