The wording of Florida's Amendment 8, like so many of the items that end up before voters on state ballots, is both simple and somewhat opaque. Purporting to address the issue of "religious freedom," the measure has provoked alarm among some school organizations in the state, who fear it would clear the path for a major expansion of private school vouchers—an interpretation that others say is off the mark.
The amendment, placed on the ballot through a vote last year by lawmakers in Florida's Republican-controlled Statehouse, would erase the ban on "using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of" religious institutions in the state's constitution.
To the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Education Association, and other groups, the implications are clear: The amendment's attempted repeal of what is known as the "no-aid" provision would allow public money to flow to religious schools in a way that has been restricted in the state because of a 2006 ruling by the state's Supreme Court.
That court decision ended a program created by then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that provided vouchers to students in academically struggling schools. A pair of separate voucher programs, one of which serves students with special needs, the other a tax-credit scholarship for impoverished students, remained intact and continues to this day.
"This extremely misleading proposal is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Wayne Blanton, FSBA's executive diretor, said in a statement last month. The measure "encourages the spread of voucher programs that are not subject to rigorous academic and teacher accountability standards and have not been shown to be academically beneficial to students," added the organization's president, Joie Cadle.
Others say critics are misreading the amendement—and the legal precedent that currently restricts vouchers in Florida. One such voice is Jon East of Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that grants scholarships through Florida's tax-credit program. East points out that the Florida Supreme Court struck down the voucher program six years ago because the system violated legal requirements for a uniform system of free public schools. The court did not base its decision on a voucher system improperly sending religious money to public schools, East notes in a recent online essay.
"In other words, the principal barrier to any new vouchers is not on the ballot," he writes, adding, "we're left only to speculate on why the opponents would spend so much on an amendment that means so little in the education world."
Ruth Melton, legislative relations director the FSBA, disagrees. While the state Supreme Court did not base its decision on the "no-aid" provision, she said, lower courts did focus on that area of Florida law—which demonstrates its continued relevance to the voucher question. By stripping the language from the state's constitution, opponents of vouchers would have one less leg to stand on, she said. And there's always the possibility that the Supreme Court could take up the voucher issue again, with a different result, Melton said.
It's probably worth framing this discussion by underscoring what may be an obvious point: Florida has been a leading laboratory for vouchers since Jeb Bush's tenure, and there are indications that Republicans in the state have ambitious designs for an expansion of private school choice. Not long after taking office, current Gov. Rick Scott publicly backed the creation of a universal voucher system, an idea that angered many school officials.
Of course, it's also possible the debate about Amendment 8 could turn out to be nothing more than a political footnote. A recent poll showed that just 28 percent of Floridians supported it, well below the 60 percent threshold needed to approve a constitutional amendment in the state.