TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Two proposed state constitutional amendments that could expand school vouchers will stay on the Nov. 4 ballot, a judge ruled yesterday.
The statewide teachers union and other organizations that challenged the proposals said they would appeal. Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said he realized time was important to both sides and ruled less than four hours after hearing arguments.
Cooper rejected a claim the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission had exceeded its authority by offering amendments that advance vouchers, which let students attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense.
Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said the teachers union would campaign against the amendments while it appeals. He conceded the legal issue may not be resolved before Election Day.
The proposals are designed in part to restore former Gov. Jeb Bush’s voucher program for students from failing public schools. It was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court two years ago.
“If these amendments pass, Jeb Bush will succeed in crippling public schools and setting up vouchers for all,” Ford said in a statement. “What Jeb Bush couldn’t do through a Republican-dominated Legislature, he is seeking to do through an appointed commission.”
Bush wasn’t on the commission, but a couple of his former gubernatorial aides, Patricia Levesque and Greg Turbeville, were members. They sponsored the two proposals.
“I think it’s ridiculous that they keep wanting to make this all about Jeb Bush,” Levesque said. “It’s very sad the teachers union is trying every possible maneuver to prevent the people from voting on these two important issues.”
Levesque now is executive director of Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, which advocates for his education policies.
Teachers union lawyer Ron Meyer argued that both ballot proposals violated a provision in the Florida Constitution that limits the tax commission to offering amendments “dealing with taxation or the state budgetary process.” The amendments, instead, apply to how money is spent rather than the budgetary process, Meyer said.
Cooper disagreed, writing that a budgetary process includes how money is spent.
Meyer also argued on behalf of associations representing school boards, superintendents and administrators and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Amendment 7 would repeal a constitutional ban on state financial aid to churches and other religious organizations. It would also prohibit state and local governments from barring any person or entity from any public program, such as a voucher plan, because of religion.
Amendment 9 would undo the Florida Supreme Court decision that struck down Bush’s voucher program because it violated a constitutional provision that limits state funding to a uniform system of free public schools.
The ballot proposal would make public schools the primary, but not only, way the state could educate its children. That change would let the state restore Bush’s voucher program. It also would protect two other programs for disabled and low-income students and any more created in the future from similar legal challenges.
Another part of Amendment 9 would require school districts to spend 65% of their budgets in the classroom. Opponents charge it’s a “sugar coating” because polls show most voters oppose vouchers.
Lawyers for the state, tax commissioners who supported the amendments and Florida Catholic Conference said the commission has much broader authority than Meyer suggested.
“The TBRC can go wherever it wants to go in the state taxation and budgeting system,” said state Solicitor General Scott Makar.
Meyer also argued that the 65% provision applies to local school districts, not the state’s budgetary process. The judge, though, sided with Makar, who said local school spending is so intertwined with that of the state that it also would affect state budgeting.
Also, the challengers claimed the title of Amendment 9 “Requiring 65 percent of school funding for classroom instruction; state’s duty for children’s education” is deceptive and misleading because it says nothing about vouchers.
Cooper ruled a longer ballot summary provides sufficient details to make voters aware of what it would do. The summary, too, doesn’t mention vouchers but says the proposal “reverses legal precedent prohibiting public funding of private school alternatives.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his organization would join in the appeal. Lynn said in a statement that passage of Amendment 7 would result in houses of worship and religious schools getting massive streams of public money.