Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Stray attack on school vouchers coming to a ballot near you

Few public issues are as absorbing as the balance between religion and government, so a ballot initiative that aims to change the boundary is worthy of rigorous debate. Instead, Florida's Amendment 8 is being treated to a proxy campaign on school vouchers.

A new radio ad by the Florida Education Association: "Amendment 8 allows the government to give our tax dollars to any group claiming to be a religious organization, so any religious group or sect can use our money to fund their own religious schools."

FEA president Andy Ford: "This is designed to open the state treasury to voucher schools."

Alachua School Board member Eileen Roy: "It's the very death of public schools. That's not overstating it, in my opinion."

These are provocative arguments, to be sure, but they are basically irrelevant. The amendment was placed on the ballot by two legislators — Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood — who have said repeatedly they want to protect religiously based social services. Their interest was piqued by a lawsuit, Council for Secular Humanism vs. McNeil, that challenges a prison ministries program, and by the fact that the New York-based council has called it "a springboard to mounting other challenges."

In turn, the pro-Amendment 8 campaign is being led by a coalition of community-service providers and religious leaders who have raised less than $100,000 to date. They believe that if the secular humanists will sue over prison ministries, they might one day challenge the Catholic Charities or Catholic hospitals or the YMCA. After all, the current constitutional language is explicit: "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."

Now it is certainly true that voucher advocates have previously pushed to alter the no-aid clause. But it is just as clear that they played no role in getting this amendment on the ballot and, most telling, have raised not a penny for the campaign. Their reasons are pragmatic, not philosophical: Federal and state court decisions in recent years have rendered the no-aid clause all but moot as it relates to school choice.

First, the no-aid clause has no bearing on Florida's current judicial precedent on school vouchers. The state Supreme Court, in its 2006 Bush vs. Holmes ruling, found Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional because they violated Article IX provisions requiring a "uniform" system of "free public schools." The court, in fact, steered clear of a lower court ruling that invalidated the scholarships based on the no-aid amendment — a decision that may well have been influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court's Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris decision, which was issued in 2002 after the initial lower court rulings in Holmes. In Zelman, the U.S. court ruled that public funds could pay for religious schools as long as the primary objective was education and parents were in no way coerced — a practice that is followed in Florida.

Second, the fastest-growing private learning option in the state — tax credit scholarships serving more than 48,500 low-income students this year — is constitutionally distinct from vouchers. In a landmark case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to tax credit scholarships in Arizona by ruling that they are not to be considered government expenditures. Consequently, most lawyers believe tax credit scholarships are safe from any legal challenge.

The curious backdrop to this stray attack on vouchers is that last year Florida provided private school options to 209,993 prekindergarten, disabled and poor students without challenge. And the one amendment that could remove a direct constitutional impediment to new vouchers — a revision to Article IX — is nowhere on the ballot. So go figure.

Voters get the chance to register a yes or no to Amendment 8 on Nov. 6, and there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement. In fact, opponents have complained the ballot title, "Religious freedom," is misleading, which seems a fair enough accusation. Unfortunately, those who also claim the amendment will open the door to vouchers are engaged in their own form of misdirection.

Jon East is vice president of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, which helps administer tax credit scholarships for low-income students in Florida.

Comments
Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Itís human nature in following any tragedy to imagine: How could this have been prevented? On that score, the city of Tampa responded appropriately to the deaths this week of a mother and her toddler whom police say were hit by a teenage driver racin...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water insi...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a prou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Floridians are paying a steep price for a system that makes it as difficult as possible for people who leave prison to reintegrate into civic life. Gov. Rick Scottís clemency process isnít just archaic and cruel ó it also wastes enormous public resou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Regardless of the reason, the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit to address Pyonyangís nuclear program is hardly the worst possible outcome of this high-stakes diplomatic gamble. President Donald Trump was unprepared, North Koreaís Kim Jong ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18

NFL kneels before the altar of profits

The owners of the 32 National Football League teams sent a wrongheaded and, frankly, un-American message to their players Wednesday: Expressing your opinion during the national anthem is no longer permitted."A club will be fined by the League if its ...
Published: 05/24/18

Editorial: A positive first step in ensuring student access at USFSP

As a task force sorts out countless details involved in folding the University of South Florida St. Petersburg back into the major research university based in Tampa, ensuring access for good Pinellas students remains a concern. An enhanced cooperati...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Legislation that waters down the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and was sent to President Donald Trump this week is a mixed bag at best. Some provisions recognize that Congress may have gone too far in some areas in the wake of the Great Recession to place new ...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18
Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

The rising tensions with Iran, the resurgence of violence in the Mideast and the uncertainty over a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea combine to create an unsettling time this Memorial Day. These grave threats to peace are another reminder of...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/25/18

Another voice: The chutzpah of these men

A new phase of the #MeToo movement may be upon us. Call it the "not so fast" era: Powerful men who plotted career comebacks mere months after being taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct now face even more alarming claims.Mario Batali, the ce...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18