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Court says voucher votes to stay on ballot

TALLAHASSEE — Opponents of school vouchers failed Monday to persuade a state judge to remove two voucher-related questions from Florida's Nov. 4 ballot.

The plaintiffs — a coalition of teachers, school boards and superintendents — have promised to appeal, meaning the case could reach the state's highest court.

Amendment 7 would repeal a constitutional ban on state financial aid to churches and religious organizations. Amendment 9 would remove language from the state Constitution that the Florida Supreme Court used in 2006 to bar then-Gov. Jeb Bush's Opportunity Scholarship program. The measure also has language requiring 65 percent of school budgets be spent in the classroom.

Both questions were placed on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a 25-member panel of high-level political appointees.

After hearing more than two hours of oral arguments Monday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper rejected arguments by a teacher union, the Florida Education Association, and its allies. The plaintiffs claimed the tax panel exceeded its authority, saying it was limited to taxation and the "state budgetary process."

In his 14-page decision, Cooper also rebuffed plaintiffs' other argument that Amendment 9 was misleading to voters because it wedded the voucher issue with the 65 percent funding issue.

Cooper wrote that the ballot measure's title and longer, 75-word summary, when read together, were not misleading.

Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said vouchers, championed by Bush, would drain resources from an underfunded public school system.

"What Jeb Bush couldn't do through a Republican-dominated Legislature, he is seeking to do through an appointed commission that is only supposed to consider tax and budget issues," Ford said.

Lobbyist Greg Turbeville, a tax commission member and former policy aide to Bush who attended the court hearing, said the union is using litigation to discredit vouchers in the eyes of voters.

"There are some liberal groups trying to protect their political turf at every turn, and they're willing to clog up the courts to do that," Turbeville said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

. FAST FACTS

Amendment 9

Title: REQUIRING 65 PERCENT OF SCHOOL FUNDING FOR CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION; STATE'S DUTY FOR CHILDREN'S EDUCATION

Summary: Requires at least 65 percent of school funding received by school districts be spent on classroom instruction, rather than administration; allows for differences in administrative expenditures by district. Provides the constitutional requirement for the state to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools" is a minimum, nonexclusive duty. Reverses legal precedent prohibiting public funding of private school alternatives to public school programs without creating an entitlement.

Court says voucher votes to stay on ballot 08/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 5, 2008 3:07pm]

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