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School-choice program in Fla. rejected by state appeals court

WASHINGTON (BP)–Another state court has dealt a setback to school choice.

A Florida appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling against the state’s “opportunity scholarship” program Aug. 16. In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeals ruled the voucher plan violates the state constitution’s prohibition on aid to religion because it “uses state revenues to aid sectarian schools.”

The next stop for the case is the Florida Supreme Court.

“We will appeal the ruling,” Gov. Jeb Bush said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “It’s unfortunate the plaintiffs continue to try to deny predominately poor and minority parents meaningful choices.”

The Florida ruling followed by less than two months a defeat for school-choice advocates in Colorado. In late June, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the state’s voucher program. The state high court voted 4-3 to halt the plan, finding it violated the Colorado constitution’s requirement it must be under local control since it was funded partly with local funds.

In both states, the programs allowed students in low-performing public schools to use vouchers to attend private schools, including religious ones.

Despite the unfavorable ruling, the Florida program, which was promoted by Bush, will remain in operation during the appeals process. The lower court’s 2002 decision was stayed when it was appealed. Of 2.5 million Florida students in kindergarten through 12th grade, only 732 have “opportunity scholarships,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

“School choice is the only reform that will give these kids a good education today, not some empty union promise of an education years down the road,” said Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based organization that is representing Florida families in the case.

Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the Florida court’s ruling a “tremendous victory for public schools and taxpayers. Americans should never be taxed to support religious schools, and this decision upholds that vital principle.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, upheld in 2002 a school-choice program in Cleveland, Ohio, that permits the use of vouchers at religious schools. The high court ruled the program was “entirely neutral with respect to religion” and did not offend the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.

Earlier this year, Congress approved a voucher program for the District of Columbia. The five-year, pilot program, which will begin this fall, is designed to permit low-income D.C. families to use vouchers to send their children to schools of their choice, including religious ones.

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