Florida voucher program that gives tax money to religious schools is unconstitutional, says opponents

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran swearing into office, Nov. 22, 2016 - photo by Scott Keeler via Wikimedia Images, Creative Commons
photo by Scott Keeler via Wikimedia Images, Creative Commons
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran swearing into office, Nov. 22, 2016
Thirteen years after Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer successfully challenged the state’s major school-vouchers program, he is preparing to sue the state again, this time over its newest taxpayer-funded scholarships.

A number of organizations want Meyer to represent them in a case to try to strike down the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month.

The organizations, which include Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue it is unconstitutional for Florida taxpayers to give low-income and middle-income students scholarships to attend private schools, including religious schools.

“Our biggest concern is religious freedom. Taxpayers should never be forced to subsidize religious instruction, and that’s exactly what this program would do,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

However, supporters of the program, including the governor, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Republican legislative leaders, maintain the program will provide children with funds to get out of failing public schools. DeSantis said approving the new voucher program will help “tens of thousands of low-income children realize their dreams.”

Luchenitser said his organization is prepared to spend “substantial resources” to defeat the program in court. And the state is prepared to spend at least $250,000 to defend the program.

At the request of Corcoran, a staunch supporter of school choice programs, DeSantis on Friday approved a quarter of a million dollars for the Department of Education to spend on “ongoing and potential future litigation.”

That money was tucked in the upcoming year’s $90.98 billion state budget. Audrey Walden, a spokeswoman for the education department, said officials “appreciate” the funds and added the department “reviews all education-related legislation to ensure compliance and implementation.”

But Meyer had a different reaction to the money being included in the budget.

“It is sad to hear the Legislature is spending public money to defend something we deem unconstitutional,” he said.

Litigation was always something that loomed over the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program as it moved through this year’s legislative session. While Republican lawmakers championed the bill as an expansion of educational choices for families, it drew a backlash from Democrats who argued the program would divert money from the public-school system into the pockets of private school operators.

In February, a sponsor of the bill, Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said it “wouldn’t be shocking” to see the voucher program challenged in court. But he said his intent was to provide students and parents with the best educational options.

In late April, litigation was also on the minds of House and Senate budget writers as they finished negotiations on the 2019-2020 spending plan. House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, for example, said they decided to set aside $250,000 to help the Department of Education defend “bold legislation” passed during the session.

“We think we have bold legislation, particularly in the school choice area, that we greatly support, and resources are needed in this very litigious society that we are in,” the Fleming Island Republican told reporters.

Voucher-type programs have been a controversial issue in Florida’s education system for the past two decades. Meyer has played an important role as a lead attorney in a case that prompted the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 to rule former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional.

Meyer said he has not decided when a lawsuit will be filed, adding that it may not come before the start of the school year.

“We want to get it right rather than fast,” Meyer said.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship Program is expected to provide vouchers to as many as 18,000 students during the school year that starts in August. Currently, Meyer does not plan to file an emergency motion to try to temporarily halt the program from being implemented.

Meyer said the groups would not want to “disrupt” the education of children who qualify for scholarships when the academic year starts. The goal, Meyer said, is to have a court rule the program permanently unconstitutional.

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