CONSTITUTIONAL STORM WARNING.

Author:Boston, Rob
 
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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 an "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...

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