Florida Approves Voucher Escape Route

Published June 1, 1999

With the Florida legislature’s passage of the nation’s first statewide school voucher plan, children in failing schools in the Sunshine State will have the means to escape: an education voucher worth roughly $4,000 a year for use at any accredited private school or another public school.

Republican Governor Jeb Bush, who made the plan a key part of the education reform package on which he campaigned last year, has promised to sign the legislation.

“A student in a failing school deserves a quality education as much as a student in a successful school,” Bush had declared during his State of the State speech on March 2, the opening day of the 1999 legislative session. “It’s time we give these students the educational opportunity they desperately need.” Within two months, the voucher plan he proposed to do just that was approved by state lawmakers.

“This is the first money-back guarantee for public schools,” said Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Washington, DC-based Institute for Justice, which advised Bush in drafting the school choice component of his education reform package. Calling the bill’s passage an historic breakthrough in public education reform, Bolick promised that the Institute would defend the program in court against the constitutional challenges that are certain to be filed by the teacher unions and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re not going to let anyone block the schoolhouse doors,” Bolick declared.

Although Bolick predicted that “competition will improve educational opportunities for all Florida’s schoolchildren,” most Democrat legislators viewed the measure as destructive of public schools. House minority leader Representative Les Miller went so far as to brand vouchers “a bigger threat than any kid walking into a school with a gun.”

Although only four of the state’s schools currently are rated as failing, this number could rise to as many as 170 as standards are raised, leaving as many as 156,000 students eligible for vouchers by the start of the 2000-2001 school year. As the Wall Street Journal‘s editors noted, Florida could represent almost an eight-fold expansion for the school choice movement: existing voucher programs in Cleveland, Maine, Milwaukee, and Vermont serve fewer than 20,000 students.

Schools would have to be rated as failing two years in a row before their students would be eligible for the vouchers, referred to as “opportunity scholarships” in the bill. Schools in danger of failing would be given additional state aid to make improvements, such as hiring tutors. But if a school doesn’t improve, even with the added funding, “it’s just morally right to provide parents other options,” said Bush. As it is, half of the state’s fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level.

“The real unfairness is for a parent to send a child to school only to find out he can’t read or write,” said State Representative Beryl Roberts, one of only six House Democrats who supported the 70-48 House vote to pass the bill on April 28. The following day, only one Democrat supported the 25-15 Senate vote for passage.

“This is vital for our long-term competitiveness as a state, vital for restoring our civil society,” said Bush, noting that only half of Florida’s high school students graduate from high school. “It pushes the resources and attention where it needs to be,” he added. “It will improve public schools.”

Although the voucher funds go to the parents, who then endorse them over to the school of their choice, critics charge the program violates Florida’s State Constitution, which provides that “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.” A legal challenge is expected as soon as Governor Bush signs the bill.

Unlike the Milwaukee voucher program, the Florida plan does not include an “opt-out” provision that requires participating religious schools to excuse children from attending the religious components of the school’s education program upon parental request. Instead, the Florida measure states that participating schools cannot compel any scholarship student to “profess a specific ideological belief, to pray, or to worship.”

“Finally a visionary state has placed the interest of the school children above the interest of the school system,” rejoiced Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice, a statewide grassroots group that emerged as a major force in marshaling support for parental choice in education. Also supporting the effort were CEO America, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the American Education Reform Foundation, and the James Madison Institute.