Constitutional Storm Warning

Florida And Other State Legislatures Are Battening The Hatches For School Voucher Tempests Of Hurricane Force

Last November Florida voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment declaring that the maintenance of "efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools" is "a paramount duty of the state."

The measure, known as Amendment 6, was a run-away winner, with 71 percent of Floridians voting for it and only 29 percent against. It passed -- often by huge margins -- in every Florida county save one, the rural and sparsely populated Lafayette County in north Florida.

Florida residents, it would seem, were making a dramatic statement about public education: They want a better, adequately funded system.

But some legislators don't seem to have gotten the message. As Florida's 1999 legislative session approaches, the Sunshine State looks to be a good candidate for a protracted battle over religious school vouchers. Incredibly, at a time when most Floridians have made it clear that they want a first-class public education system, some lawmakers are fixated on finding ways to channel taxpayer dollars into the coffers of parochial and other private schools.

Voucher mania among Florida legislators begins at the top -- the governor's mansion. Florida's newly elected Republican governor, Jeb Bush, has backed some type of voucher plan, although he remains vague on the specifics.

Bush's right-hand man, Lieutenant Gov. Frank T. Brogan, is an even bigger voucher enthusiast. As Florida's education commissioner from 1994 to 1998, Brogan spent a lot of time promoting the idea of taxpayer funding of religious and other private schools.

On Feb. 6, 1996, for example, Brogan issued a legislative agenda that included a "tuition scholarship program" -- a euphemism for private school vouchers -- as a prominent plank. His plan would have directed taxpayer money to "accredited" private schools for "at-risk" students in kindergarten through grade 12. The money, he said, would be allocated though a "voucher or portable scholarship."

Brogan and voucher allies in the state legislature failed to pass religious school aid bills in the past because of the stiff opposition of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. During his time in office, Chiles vowed to veto vouchers in any form, arguing that they would hurt public education in Florida.

With Bush in office, Brogan and his allies expect a friendlier reception for vouchers in the GOP-controlled state legislature. Pro-voucher groups are equally excited and are pouring money into the effort and sending high-powered lobbyists to Tallahassee. Despite the declaration of support for public education voters made last November, Florida has become ground zero in this year's version of the voucher wars.

"Florida is definitely our most 'at risk' state this year," says Reese Aaron Isbell, state legislative coordinator for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Legislators there are being heavily lobbied to pass some type of voucher bill. Keeping that from happening is one of our top state legislative priorities for 1999."

Florida's legislative session doesn't start until next month, but two voucher bills have already been pre-filed. Both measures are sponsored by Sen. John M. McKay (R-Bradenton). SB 100 would establish a voucher pilot in four Florida counties -- Clay, Manatee, Okaloosa and Orange, with vouchers worth half of the per-pupil state expenditure in public schools. (Low-income students would get full private school tuition paid at state expense.) McKay's second proposal, SB 116, is similar except it is limited to students with "disabilities" and includes home schoolers in its largess.

Florida would seem an odd state to consider public funding of private education. Public education is going through severe growing pains, and many parents argue that it needs more support. With no state income tax, Florida relies largely on lottery proceeds to pay for public education -- an uncertain source of money that can vacillate wildly. Many Floridians complain that the system is underfunded.

That sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Clearwater parent Cindy Ehrenzeller, an activist with the Pinellas Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, who told the St. Petersburg Times last year, "The legislature has said we could throw money at public education and it would not improve. Just once I would like to see them throw the money."

Part of Florida's woes spring from a spiraling demand for new public schools as the state's population has grown. According to the Florida Department of Education, during the 1997-98 academic year, just under 2.5 million youngsters were enrolled in Florida's public schools. About 11 percent of the school-age population attended private institutions or home schools. Three-fourths of all private schools in Florida are religiously affiliated.

In national education rankings, Florida is usually in the bottom 10 states in many categories. The on-time graduation rate, for example, is just below 60 percent, one of the worst in the nation.

Nevertheless, voucher boosters clearly believe momentum is on their side. The pro-voucher forces are a diverse lot, led by Floridians for School Choice, a Miami-based group that recently hired five high-powered lobbyists to press for vouchers with lawmakers in Tallahassee. Joining the voucher crusade are the state's active Christian Coalition chapter and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which enjoys a power base in heavily Catholic south Florida.

Floridians for School Choice has ambitious plans. The group's director, Patrick Heffernan, who formerly headed an education group for the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, told the Miami Herald recently that the organization wants a statewide, full-fledged voucher program open to all students -- even those who are home-schooled.

"The very mission statement of the organization is to give every child in Florida the mechanism to choose their own schools," Heffernan said.

Despite its name, Floridians for School Choice is receiving most of its money from an out-of-state source: the Children's Educational Opportunity of America Foundation. This group, better known as CEO America, is a national pro-voucher organization based in Arkansas and run by John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart discount store fortune. CEO America has pledged to spend $1.5 million to promote vouchers in Florida over the next three years. For his part, Bush has remained cagey on Floridians for School Choice's proposal. Although the new governor supports vouchers, the plan he has put forth is vague. Bush first unveiled the proposal last August at a press conference where he suggested that every public school in Florida should get a letter grade from A to F. Schools earning an A would get an extra $110 per pupil as a reward. Students at low-performing schools would get vouchers beginning in the year 2001 or 2002.

"There is a myth being perpetrated by our opposition...[that] the world will come to and end and vouchers will destroy public education," Bush said at the press conference. "We must...give more flexibility and more autonomy when success occurs and be less tolerant when failure happens."

During the campaign Bush was unclear about the role religious schools would play in his voucher proposal. Last October the St. Petersburg Times reported that Bush wanted to "include religious schools, but not necessarily religion" and said he spoke of an arrangement where children could "opt out" of religious instruction.

That idea did not sit well with officials at the Florida Catholic Conference, which runs 220 Catholic schools in the state. "We blend the religious into everything we do," Larry Keough, the conference's education coordinator, told the newspaper. "I can tell you that we're not going to compromise our mission."

Voucher opponents believe the November vote on Amendment 6 gives them powerful ammunition to use against religious school aid plans. "Floridians seem to be saying they want quality public schools and that they want their public school dollars to stay with those schools," said David Clark, a spokesman with Florida Teaching Profession (FTP), an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Florida anti-voucher forces also point to polling data showing that 60 percent of residents who voted on Nov. 3 oppose vouchers.

Clark said FTP and other organizations have banded together to form an umbrella group called the Florida Coalition for Public Education. It includes education organizations, civil liberties groups, religious groups and others. (Americans United was instrumental in bringing the coalition together.)

"We're trying to educate the public and say vouchers are vouchers," said Clark. "They can call them 'opportunity scholarships' or any other name, but you're still draining precious resources from the public schools that need them and giving them to private institutions that are not accountable to the public. It's a shell game, and our goal is to try to educate as many people as possible."

Bush should have plenty of help in the state legislature for his voucher crusade. Former House Speaker Daniel Webster, a far-right conservative closely aligned with the Religious Right, won a Senate seat last November. Webster is a long-time religious school aid advocate who last year added a voucher measure aimed at kindergarten-aged children to two unrelated House education bills that Chiles had backed. (The bills later died.)

In addition, voucher supporters are making some headway in Florida's Democratic Party, which has traditionally opposed vouchers. Last year one voucher bill was introduced by Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, a Miami Democrat. Voucher boosters are also trumpeting polling data that they claim shows rising support for the concept in the African-American community.

Americans United is preparing for a tough battle. AU's presence in Florida has grown steadily over the past several years, and there are now four AU chapters in Florida and hundreds of committed activists. Staffers from the national office will be in the state to coordinate efforts.

In addition, Americans United has hired a temporary grassroots organizer, based in St. Petersburg, to coordinate the organization's anti-voucher activity in the state. The organizer, Rosemary Dempsey, is a former national vice president of the National Organization for Women. AU is also working to put together a statewide network of anti-voucher religious leaders and this month will host a special legislative training workshop in Ft. Myers. The training is designed to help state residents learn effective strategies for opposing vouchers and supporting church-state separation.

(Florida residents interested in helping with AU's anti-voucher efforts should contact David Morris at the national office at (202) 466-3234, or via e-mail: dmorris@au.org.)

And, should vouchers pass in Florida, Americans United would lend its expertise to any legal challenge. (AU has joined every lawsuit against vouchers to date.) If the battle shifts to the courts, defenders of church-state separation will cite Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which states in part, "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."

Additionally, Article VII, Section 6 of the state constitution establishes a state school fund and says that money from that fund may be appropriated "only to the support and maintenance of free public schools."

But the anti-voucher forces know that strong separationist language in a state constitution is no trump card. The Wisconsin Constitution is quite strict in barring tax aid to religious schools, yet that language was simply ignored by the state's highly politicized supreme court, which upheld Milwaukee's voucher experiment last year.

"We know that we can't always rely on the courts," says AU's Isbell. "A better strategy is to educate the people of Florida so they let their legislators know, in no uncertain terms, that they do not want to see vouchers become law in Florida."

Strategists on site in Florida agree. Gary Landry, a spokesman with the Florida Education Association-United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said his group is focusing on moderate Republicans in the legislature, hoping to swing their votes.

"By and large, we have a group of moderate Republicans in there," said Landry. "The last poll I saw indicated that people, when asked if they want vouchers or to fix the public schools, choose fixing the schools first. People realize we've got to fix the problem, and the legislature has to give us the dollars."

While Americans United is focusing a lot of attention on Florida, the organization is by no means ignoring voucher threats in other states. According to Isbell, AU is monitoring activity around the country. Isbell said vouchers, tuition tax credits or other religious school aid proposals could appear in as many as 41 state legislatures this year.

Aside from Florida, AU is particularly concerned about Illinois and Pennsylvania.

In Illinois, officials with the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago have resorted to a type of blackmail to win support for vouchers. Last December Cardinal Francis George issued a plea for state aid to keep financially ailing parochial schools afloat. George said without the assistance, the public school system could be forced to absorb nearly 131,000 Catholic school pupils.

"We're in trouble," George said. "We're sustainable, but not indefinitely." He added, "We're talking about $1 billion without these schools. That's what it would cost to absorb these 131,000 students into the public schools."

George made the comments as he released a task force report on the state of Catholic education in Cook and Lake counties. The report found that parochial school teachers are underpaid, making on average half of their public school counterparts. It also showed that many urban schools face declining enrollments.

Some Illinois legislators are eager to help out. "I think there is a legitimate public policy interest in ensuring the viability of the Chicago Catholic school system," Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican and author of past voucher bills, told the Chicago Tribune. "The failure of the Chicago Catholic school system may be in our hands. It may require more dramatic intervention."

The state's new governor, Republican George Ryan, supports tuition tax credits for low-income families and has pledged to see a tax credit measure introduced this year. But Ryan is less enthusiastic about vouchers. A spokesman said the new governor believes that vouchers "would be a drain on public education."

Sen. James Phillip, president of the Republican-controlled Senate, told the Tribune that "everything is on the table." But in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have the majority, Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, while indicating that the tax credit proposal seems more realistic than previous efforts, has not indicated support for vouchers.

Archdiocesan officials said they plan to invite Ryan, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and leaders from the state legislature to a conference this month to discuss the issue. George has already met privately with Ryan, Madigan and Phillip.

George also has the ear of U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich's replacement as the new speaker of the House of Representatives. Last month The Washington Post reported that Hastert plans to meet with the cardinal to explore ways to assist the archdiocese's schools.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, an ardent voucher booster, was reelected easily last November and is expected to push some type of religious school aid scheme this year. A Ridge spokesman told the Associated Press last November that vouchers would be "at the top of his list" in 1999.

Ridge proposed legislation in 1998 that would have created a statewide voucher plan with income caps. But lawmakers put a hold on the scheme, saying they did not have adequate time to study it. The proposal is reportedly on a fast-track in 1999. Ridge claims he has the votes to pass it in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; the outlook in the state Senate is murkier.

Americans United chapters, activists and members will work in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania -- and any other state where vouchers become a threat -- to educate the public and preserve the separation of church and state.

"We have a busy year ahead of us," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "Voucher boosters are determined to push their schemes through in as many states as possible. Americans United must be there to meet them in each and every one and see that the public understands the true nature of these dangerous, unconstitutional plans."