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Group will sue to keep voucher questions off ballot

A group of public education advocates is expected to file a lawsuit today in Tallahassee asking that two private school voucher measures be struck from the November ballot.

The plaintiffs — including a state teachers union and associations for school boards and superintendents — say both Amendments 7 and 9 should be scrapped. They contend the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission exceeded its constitutional authority in proposing them.

Both ballot measures seek to rewrite language in the Florida Constitution that was used by the courts to strike down Opportunity Scholarships, the first and most controversial of the three voucher programs created under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

The amendments "have nothing to do with taxation or the state budgetary process," says the suit, a copy of which the plaintiffs provided early to the St. Petersburg Times. "They deal rather with the separation of church and state, (and) Florida's obligation to provide for the education of its children through a system of free public schools."

In addition, the suit says, Amendment 9 should be removed because its ballot title and summary are misleading.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in Florida's nine-year battle over vouchers, which allow students to attend private school using public money. Florida has about 39,000 students on vouchers — more than any other state.

The suit's arguments are ludicrous, said Greg Turbeville, a commission member and former policy director for Bush.

"Education spending is the state's top priority, so why shouldn't" the commission deal with it? he asked. "That's an argument they're going to have a tough time supporting."

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Scholarships. Since then, Bush and/or his proxies, including allies on the taxation and budget commission, have pushed to revive the program and legally insulate the remaining two voucher programs. One is for disabled children, the other for poor children.

Amendment 7 would nix the "no aid" language in the state Constitution that bars state money from going to religious institutions. An appeals court struck down Opportunity Scholarships on those grounds.

After the Bush administration appealed, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Opportunity Scholarships violate a constitutional mandate for a "uniform" system of free public schools. Amendment 9 would mitigate that language.

But in a move that outraged critics, Amendment 9 would also require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their money in classrooms — a second policy that critics contend was added to the measure to sweeten the pot for voters who don't support vouchers.

The lawsuit takes aim at the ballot title, "Requiring 65 percent of school funding for classroom instruction; state's duty for children's education."

"I think they're right," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who served on the commission but voted against putting Amendment 9 on the ballot. "My fear has been that we would become known as the Voucher Commission as opposed to the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission."

Turbeville's take: Both proposals deal with education spending, so "there's a logical connection."

The suit will be filed in Leon Circuit Court. The plaintiffs have scheduled a press conference for this morning.

Constitutional amendments need support from 60 percent of voters to pass.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Group will sue to keep voucher questions off ballot 06/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 4:43pm]

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