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Florida High Court Reviews School Vouchers

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Florida's Supreme Court holds hearings today on whether a school voucher program is constitutional. The state program is for students in schools that perform poorly. The students get the option to attend private schools at public expense. This court ruling will directly affect only Florida schools, but it could matter in other states as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Three years ago this month, the US Supreme Court seemingly had the last say on the constitutionality of school vouchers when it ruled in favor of a voucher program in Cleveland that allowed students to attend religious schools. The Florida case, though, is different. It's about the state's constitution and whether the state should allow children to attend private and parochial schools at public expense. The legal wrangling began in 1999, the year Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the nation's first statewide voucher program into law. Within hours, Ruth Holmes, a public school teacher, sued to block it.

The case known as Holmes vs. Bush has since gone to court five times. Four times, the lower courts have said the voucher program is unconstitutional. Here's the way it works. Any student who attends a public school that the state has labeled failing two years in a row can receive a $4,300 voucher to attend a better school. Today, most of the 700 children in the program are enrolled in religious schools. Clint Bolick, who heads Alliance for School Choice, a pro-voucher group based in Arizona, concedes the Florida Constitution forbids the use of public funds for aiding religious institutions.

Mr. CLINT BOLICK (Alliance for School Choice): But school vouchers are for the aid of schoolchildren. This has nothing to do with aiding religious education and everything to do with expanding educational opportunities for children who desperately need them.

SANCHEZ: Bolick represents several Florida parents who receive vouchers. He, like Governor Bush, argued that it's parents who decide where they want to take their $4,300 voucher. The state doesn't push them into religious schools. `They're missing the point,' says Elliot Mincberg of People For the American Way. He says the Florida Constitution is clear. It reads, `No revenue of the state 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.'

Mr. ELLIOT MINCBERG (People For the American Way): And clearly that's a large part of what's happening. By providing vouchers, these religious schools are able to propagate their religious instruction and their religious promotion to children who otherwise would not be there.

SANCHEZ: Mincberg is co-counsel to some of the plaintiffs in the case, a group that includes parents opposed to vouchers, teachers unions, the NAACP, the state PTA and the League of Women Voters. Thirty-eight states, including Florida, forbid state aid for religious purposes, but every state has a slightly different take on the separation of church and state. That's why the US Supreme Court's decision to uphold vouchers three years ago has had a limited impact on state courts' rulings across the country. The Florida decision on the other hand might have a greater impact, especially if the court strikes down vouchers. Again, Clint Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice.

Mr. BOLICK: It would certainly be a serious setback to the school choice movement nationally because Florida is ground zero for the school choice movement. Florida has more school choice programs, including private school options, than any other state.

SANCHEZ: And all of them are at risk, says Bolick. The Florida Supreme Court could decide as early as August.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudio Sanchez