School voucher lawsuit looms, testing the constitutionality of church and state

Catholic school
Credit: Creative Commons

A lawsuit over Florida’s controversial new school voucher program is now inevitable, with legal staff and advocacy groups already identifying people who could be plaintiffs in a case that is expected to go to the Florida Supreme Court.

Not everything is in place yet, but “there is going to be a (legal) challenge,” said Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer, who represents the Florida Education Association. “It’s not going to be next week, but it’s going to be, I suspect, before school starts.”

A legal fight has been expected since the Republican-led House and Senate approved the so-called “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program that will allow more students — from both low-income and middle-class families — to attend private and religious schools with public dollars.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on the legislation last month.

Various opponents of the new voucher program have made clear that they want to challenge the legality of the program and be part of a lawsuit.

Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in an email to the Phoenix that the group’s board of directors already “took a position that should a lawsuit be filed, we would be willing participants.” Brigham said she couldn’t comment further.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have also been vocal about wanting to participate in a lawsuit, said attorney Meyer. He said he was free to disclose the group’s intentions. The organization “finds very offensive the diversion of tax money” to support vouchers for religious schools, Meyer said.

Meyer was lead counsel in the pivotal Bush v. Holmes school voucher case that ended up at the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. That taxpayer-financed voucher program, launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, was declared unconstitutional.

A new voucher case, under DeSantis, would start off in Leon County Circuit Court, and likely end up in an appellate court and then the Florida Supreme Court.

The makeup of the high court has now changed, with DeSantis appointing three new conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Proponents of the vouchers hope those new judges could make a difference in securing school voucher programs in Florida.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship program is expected to launch in 2019-20 with 18,000 students. The number of scholarships would increase after that by .25 percent of the total public school enrollment, which would be about 7,100, based on current enrollment figures.

The cost, at first, would be about almost $140-million – money that would come out of the pot of money used for traditional schools. Use of that funding source has been widely opposed by public school advocacy groups, with critics saying it will drain much-needed dollars from traditional schools.

Meyer said it’s likely that the state’s newest voucher program would launch and continue while a legal challenge is ongoing.

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