TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Earlier this year Florida lawmakers voted to put a proposal on the statewide ballot which, if approved by voters, would clear the way for state money to be used for student tuition at religious schools.
The same lawmakers also expect the teachers’ union to launch a legal challenge to their proposal. So they passed another law, allowing the state attorney general to restructure and salvage ballot proposals that are tossed out by the courts before voters have a chance to consider them.
As it turns out, application of that law was necessary this week to sidestep a court ruling that temporarily threw the lawmakers’ proposal off the ballot, according to a story posted on Jacksonville.com.
As it stands now, Florida voters will once again get to decide whether public school students can use public money to attend religious schools.
That’s a huge victory for those who believe the people, rather than the courts, should dictate state policy. And it’s a huge defeat for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, which is fighting to maintain a guaranteed clientele of geographically-trapped students for its members.
A Victory for Democracy
This story goes back to 1996, when the courts struck down a statewide school voucher program on constitutional grounds.
Gov. Rick Scott reignited that debate earlier this year when he said Florida K-12 students should be allowed to use state money to attend their school of choice, even if it’s religious.
But many believe that sort of voucher program would violate the “Blaine Amendment” written into Florida’s constitution, which prohibits tax dollars from going directly or indirectly to religious institutions.
The ballot proposal approved earlier this year by legislators would amend the constitution and overturn the Blaine amendment, potentially clearing the way for a new student voucher program.
All bets were off last week when Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, responding to a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and other labor interests, tossed the proposal off the ballot because he said it lacked clarity and would mislead voters.
But then Attorney General Pam Bondi stepped in and rewrote the ballot proposal to address the clarity issues. Suddenly the issue is back in the court of public opinion, where it clearly belongs. The rewritten proposal is expected to be on the November 2012 ballot.
“Voters deserve an opportunity to decide whether to remove from Florida’s constitution a provision that discriminates against religious institutions,” Bondi wrote in a statement explaining her action.
If the teachers’ union wants to stop the development of a voucher program, it may have to convince voters that public schools should be the only alternative for hundreds of thousands of underachieving students.
We think they will struggle to sell that argument.