Voucher Law Signed in Florida

Published August 1, 1999

Calling it “a giant stride forward in ensuring that schools serve children and their families,” Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the nation’s first statewide voucher program on June 21.

The program enables parents to pull their children out of failing public schools and send them to a private or religious school for an education at taxpayer expense.

“We’re going to give parents other options when their schools–the most important public service that we provide–don’t work for their needs,” declared Bush. The Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for education “puts the educational needs of every student above the bureaucratic needs of the system.”

Initially, only two schools in Pensacola have students eligible for vouchers. But this number is expected to increase in the future, as higher standards make it likely that more schools will fail.

Even before Bush signed the bill, it was clear that school officials had responded to it, taking actions to avoid the disgrace of having their schools appear on a list of the state’s failing educational institutions.

Though opponents initially claimed the voucher program would “destroy” public schools, it appears to be having the opposite effect. Since the voucher measure was approved by the legislature in April,

  • Broward County took steps to assign experienced principals and assistant principals as advisors to schools with lagging test scores; poor readers in those schools will get additional help through a new pilot reading improvement program.
  • The Hillsborough County school board began work on a plan to help schools with marginal grades.
  • Two high schools in Miami have added classes to improve student performance in fundamental subject areas.

“Local school officials have been remarkably candid about the reason for their sudden interest in the plight of poor-performing students and schools,” noted Bush.

As an associate superintendent told the Miami Herald: “No one wants to see their schools get on the list.” Another school official in Gainesville told her local newspaper she was going to work very hard to make sure no one in her district needed a voucher.

That was exactly the reaction Bush had predicted when he persuaded legislators to support his voucher proposal in April: If there are no failing schools, there will be no vouchers.

Despite the positive response by public education officials to the dual threat of being labeled “failing” and losing students to other schools, voucher opponents still appeared to view public schools as helpless victims of circumstances. They heard only a message of inertia and hopelessness, which they conveyed on the day Bush signed the bill.

“This bill sends out the message, ‘the public schools have failed and nothing can fix them,'” said Jack Lieberman, president of the American Jewish Congress Southeast Region. “How can those schools ever be repaired if their best students are removed and sent to private and religious institutions?”

In pledging to mount a legal challenge to the voucher measure, Lieberman argued that the bill violated the Florida Constitution’s requirement that no public money be spent on religious schools.

But the public funds for Florida’s opportunity scholarships are not spent directly on schools, but on students. Vouchers go to parents, and the school they choose is only an indirect beneficiary of the public funds. Programs similar to Florida’s have already been deemed constitutional in cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and by state supreme courts in Ohio and Wisconsin.