On November Ballot, Florida Voters Will Decide Fate of School Vouchers

Published June 1, 2008

In a move that will almost certainly revive legal battles over using taxpayer money for private schools, a commission has agreed to give voters an opportunity to reverse a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that found then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s prized voucher program unconstitutional.

With April 25’s final meeting after more than a year of work, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC) approved seven constitutional amendments for the November ballot. Each needs 60 percent approval from voters to take effect. The TBRC meets every 20 years with the power to put constitutional amendments directly on the ballot.

The TBRC also removed another impediment to vouchers by asking voters in November to remove the constitutional ban on using taxpayer money for religious or faith-based programs.

Combining Issues

The panel’s April 25 meeting ended in a haze of mystery. Bush allies on the TBRC succeeded in passing a plan that would end the constitutional ban on using taxpayer money for K-12 education anywhere other than the public school system. To help sweeten the measure for voters, the proposal was abruptly joined with an unrelated plan that requires school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their revenue on “classroom instruction rather than on administration.”

TBRC member Les Miller, a former Democratic lawmaker from Tampa, said he was “shocked” by the unexpected merger of ideas. He said the mixing of two plans may violate the constitutional requirement that ballot language be clear.

“The public is not going to know what it’s all about,” said Miller. “The constitutional lawyers are going to get rich between now and November.”

“We will be the first state, I believe, to create a mandate to publicly finance private education,” said House Democratic leader Dan Gelber (D-Miami Beach), a nonvoting member of the TBRC.

Dangerous Ruling

The 2006 court decision ended Bush’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provided vouchers for about 700 students in low-performing public schools to attend private schools. The court said the vouchers violated the state’s constitutional requirement for a “uniform” system of education by using taxpayer money at private schools that did not have to meet the same standards as public schools.

Patricia Levesque, a TBRC member and executive director of Bush’s think tank, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said the TBRC’s plan was needed since the 2006 court ruling jeopardized other programs such as charter schools, virtual schools, and voucher programs for special-needs students.

Levesque acknowledged the political benefits of topping the voucher plan with the so-called “65 percent” plan.

“I would hope that 65 percent buoys the school choice” portion, Levesque said. “I hope school choice kind of buoys the 65 percent” plan. “There are probably people that feel one way or the other on the different items, and I hope they work together well.”

Letting Voters Decide

In a rare public statement, Bush applauded the plan.

“Unfortunately, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the successful program partly under the tortured reasoning that a better education from a private school was unconstitutional because it was different than the education provided by a public school,” Bush said. “Thanks to the good work of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, Florida voters, not activist jurists, will ultimately decide the best way to provide a quality education for all of our students.”

The TBRC had defeated the voucher plan earlier in April. But it mysteriously came back to life during the final week of the session and was approved, leading some to wonder if votes were being traded among panel members for support on other plans.

“People didn’t vote for this on the basis of merit, they voted on the basis of deal-making,” said Ron Meyer, a teachers’ union attorney who won the 2006 Supreme Court case. “That’s not a good way to amend the constitution.”

Gelber, the House Democratic leader, said the TBRC had overreached its constitutional duty to focus on taxes and spending.

“I think if you asked the average Floridian whether the people they were hoping would provide relief and reform to Florida’s dysfunctional and inequitable tax system spent a minute of their day on vouchers, they would be shocked,” said Gelber. “I think this is as wrong-headed a proposal as the commission could come up with.”

Swapping Taxes

The clear centerpiece of the TBRC’s work was a “tax swap” that, if approved by voters, would cut property taxes by about 25 percent in exchange for an unknown increase and expansion of the state’s sales tax.

But that plan, like most of the others approved by the TBRC, did not need constitutional changes and could have been passed into law by the legislature.

The TBRC “became the commission where if people couldn’t get things done legislatively, they brought it to this commission,” Miller said.

Along with the tax swap and two voucher-related plans, the TBRC approved proposals to create tax breaks for land set aside for conservation and some coastal businesses and homeowners who make their homes more hurricane-resistant. The TBRC also approved a proposed amendment allowing county referenda on increasing local sales taxes for community colleges.

Those are difficult issues lawmakers “can’t tackle, which is precisely why we exist,” said Bruce Kyle, a circuit judge in Fort Myers. “Give voters the opportunity to decide whether or not they want the legislature to spend their money in this manner.”

Joe Follick ([email protected]) is the Capitol Bureau reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in which a previous version of this story appeared April 26. Copyright 2008, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Reprinted by express permission of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.