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Judge: State Must Post $2 Million To Keep Running Voucher Program
Herald Tribune ^ | 11/11/03 | Jackie Hallifax

Posted on 11/11/2003 6:46:14 AM PST by Tumbleweed_Connection

The state Department of Education must set aside another $2 million to continue implementing Florida's original school voucher program, a judge ruled Monday.

Circuit Judge Kevin Davey said the state must post the additional bond while it appeals his 2002 decision that the voucher program violates the Florida Constitution by spending tax dollars on religious institutions.

That issue is pending before the 1st District Court of Appeal, which heard oral arguments this spring.

Although Davey concluded in August 2002 that the voucher law was unconstitutional, he said the state could continue to issue vouchers while it appealed.

But there was a condition: The state had to set aside money so public schools losing students to private schools through vouchers could be reimbursed if appeals courts agreed that the law was unconstitutional.

The state secured a $2.5 million line of credit last year, which more than covered the $2.1 million spent on vouchers.

With some 660 students on vouchers this year, the state expects to spend about $2.8 million on the original vouchers, which it calls "opportunity scholarships." However, it added only $350,000 to its line of credit.

Voucher opponents told Davey that fell far short of what was needed since both years were supposed to be covered under the line of credit.

"What the department has done is simply counted that $2.5 million twice," said Ronald Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney representing voucher opponents.

The state, however, argued that Davey didn't have the authority to set the condition in the first place. It also argued that public schools weren't really losing money since the average voucher is about $1,000 less than the $5,300 the state spends to educate a student in a public school.

Barry Richard, a lawyer for the state, told Davey that everyone agreed that blocking enforcement of the voucher law would disrupt the education of several hundred students.

What's more, Richard argued, the public schools that lost students to private schools via vouchers are actually in better fiscal shape.

"It costs the school district considerably more to educate a student than the money that it is losing," he said.

Davey refused to stop implementation of the 1999 voucher law - but he said the state must increase its line of credit by $2 million by Friday.

The state will appeal his decision, said Daniel Woodring, a lawyer for the state Department of Education.

Under the law, students at public schools that earn failing grades from the state two years out of four are eligible for the vouchers. They can attend religious schools, but can't be forced to pray, worship or profess a religious belief.

For the first three years, eligibility was limited to a few dozen students, all from two schools in Pensacola. That number mushroomed to about 9,000 in 2002 and to 13,700 this summer, but most students eligible for a voucher don't use them. Some 660 students now attend private schools with vouchers under this law.

Florida's original voucher program is also its smallest. The state later created two larger voucher programs.

One, known as the McKay scholarship, is open to students with learning disabilities and has about 12,000 students. The other, with about 16,000 students last year, gives dollar-for-dollar tax credits to businesses that donate to private scholarship organizations for poor children.

The constitutionality of the original voucher law was challenged by the state teacher's union, the Florida PTA, the Florida League of Women Voters, the Florida branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several individual families and educators.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; US: Florida
KEYWORDS: voucher; vouchers

1 posted on 11/11/2003 6:46:15 AM PST by Tumbleweed_Connection
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