Florida School Choice - Op-Ed: Miami Herald

Voucher's Day in Court Erase the Doubt

Lawsuit needed to clarify constitutional question.

The Miami Herald 06/24/99

Are school vouchers legal? That's what the American Civil Liberties Union wants to know. So do we. So on Tuesday, the day after Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a massive school-reform bill that included his voucher plan, the ACLU and a coalition of other groups took the issue to court, just as they'd promised when the bill cleared the Legislature.

Some voucher supporters have been sharply critical of the ACLU for mounting this challenge. In Monday's editions of The Herald, for instance, the conservative Institute for Justice ran a full-page ad that included a picture of a smiling mother and child:

``Florida is giving Jessica Merkman -- and every Florida child -- a money-back guarantee on their public education,'' the ad proclaimed in large type. ``The ACLU wants to take it away.''

The ad went on to assert that ``school choice is constitutional,'' citing programs such as Pell Grants, the G.I. Bill, and Florida's ``Bright Futures'' college-scholarship program as proof.

We believe that Florida's new voucher law is the right move.

The law provides that those recipients who opt to attend church-related schools not be pressured to profess a religious belief, to worship or to participate in prayer or any other religious exercise.

This provision may, in fact, undercut the ACLU's contentions about church-state entanglements. It also should be remembered that "faith-based'' groups in Florida have received public funds for many years to provide day care and educational services for tots below kindergarten age -- and that courts in several other states have upheld tuition-voucher plans for grades K-12.

Those arguments carry weight, but alas, they don't satisfactorily settle the issue. For one thing, regarding separation of church and state, Florida's constitution goes beyond most current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.

The state constitution's Article I, Section 3 says: ``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.''

If parents use one of Gov. Bush's ``opportunity scholarships'' to send their child to a parochial school, is that an example of indirect aid to a sectarian institution? Initially, a state circuit court will decide. Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court will rule.

We support vouchers as an escape hatch for children who otherwise would be trapped in failing public schools. Even so, the constitutional issues remain murky. Thus, The Herald also believes that the ACLU and its allies deserve commendation, not condemnation, for asking the courts to settle this thorny issue once and for all.

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