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Voucher decision thwarts will of people, ERLC’s Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–A Florida judge’s decision invalidating a school voucher program adopted by the state legislature is “one more example of raw judicial power thwarting the clearly expressed will of the people,” said the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy agency.

The ruling struck down the portion of a new program that permitted students in failing public schools to use vouchers at private schools. The system, adopted last year, provides vouchers to students whose schools are given an “F” for the second time in four years. The students may attend private schools or other public schools.

The March 14 decision immediately impacts 53 students who left two public schools in Pensacola, Fla., to attend private schools. They will be able to complete this semester, but there will be no state vouchers for them next year, The New York Times reported. The ruling also blocks expansion of the program to as many as 60,000 students in 78 schools that may receive a second “F” this year, according to The Times.

“As is often the case, the people who are most hurt are among the weakest and most defenseless — children who had been attending public schools where it was manifestly evident they were not being taught to read and write and count,” said Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The judge’s decision “raises the question how long the American people will put up with being ruled by these judicial czars in black robes,” Land said. “This is not government of the people and by the people and for the people.”

The opinion by federal circuit Judge Ralph Smith of Tallahassee did not invalidate the country’s first statewide voucher program on church-state grounds, which has been the question in other systems that included religious schools. Instead, his ruling said the program was unlawful because it “supplants the system of free public schools mandated by the [state] constitution,” according to The Times.

It is the first time a court has struck down the use of public funds for private schools under state education guarantees, the Institute for Justice said in decrying the decision.

“This absurd and unprecedented ruling turns the Florida Constitution on its head, said Clint Bolick of the institute, which represented voucher recipients in the lawsuit, in a written release. “The public schools have failed these youngsters, and the private schools fulfill the constitutional guarantee of a high-quality public education.”

Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said in a written statement it was “disappointing that legal maneuverings are being used to block educational opportunities for those children that need them so desperately. We are confident this ruling will be reversed.”

Public-school advocates hailed the decision.

The ruling “puts a stake in the heart of the voucher movement,” said National Education Association President Bob Chase in a prepared statement. “It sends a strong signal to states across the nation that vouchers are no substitute for a quality public education.”

The National School Boards Association said in a written statement the ruling was a “wonderful victory” that would have had the same result “under the U.S. Constitution, which forbids an improperly close relationship between church and state.”

Smith’s opinion follows by three months a ruling by a federal judge in Ohio that a Cleveland program was unconstitutional because it permitted vouchers to be used at religious schools. That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Florida ruling also will be appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to agree to review an appeal of a voucher case, but the Cleveland program could be the one the justices have been waiting for. Four times in the last 16 months the justices have refused to review appeals of decisions on education choice.

In a case testing a Wisconsin voucher program, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Milwaukee project. The brief argued the exclusion of religious schools from a voucher program for only secular private schools would constitute discrimination against religion, while inclusion of religious schools would not violate church-state separation.