The clash over private school vouchers and religious schools in Florida

Catholic school
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With legislation moving forward on a plan to expand private school vouchers in Florida, it’s clear that Catholic schools in the state will be big supporters – but not all religious groups.

James Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, has already made public his support for the new and controversial “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program proposed by key senators.

He’s one of several Catholic-school related lobbyists pushing for the new program, which, if approved, would launch with 15,000 students using public dollars to attend private schools in 2019-20.  Each year after that, the number of eligible students would rise based on the increase in the state’s overall public school population.

But at a Senate Education Committee meeting last week, the Rev. Russell L. Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, raised several concerns about the new voucher proposal.

“We believe there should be one standard of accountability for publicly-funded education,” Meyer said, because not all private schools meet the same rigorous building codes as public schools and, “certified teachers should be required wherever public education funds are spent,” among other issues.

“To ensure access to free public high quality education for all students is a Constitutional mandate of the state,” Meyer said. “Scholarships for private education by themselves do not satisfy the mandate to provide free public education to all students. That mandate needs to be thoroughly and firmly addressed.”

He added, “There are many church state questions unaddressed at this point, and how scholarship money is used in faith-based schools.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State last week sent a letter to the Senate Education Committee, opposing the legislation that launches a new voucher proposal.

“Public funds should fund public schools, not private, mostly religious, schools,” the letter states, and the new Empowerment Scholarship Program “would increase the number of vouchers in Florida to five. With each voucher program the state passes, it further undermines public schools.”

As it stands now, “Most voucher programs primarily fund religious schools. Nearly 80% of Florida’s current voucher students, for example, are enrolled in religious schools,” the letter states.

“Yet, one of the most fundamental principles of religious liberty is that government should not compel any citizen to pay for someone else’s religious education. Indeed, this principle is enshrined in the Florida Constitution.”

Under the Senate’s voucher expansion proposal, students would be eligible if their family income is no higher than 260 percent of the federal poverty level. That would be roughly $67,000 for a family of four, according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — more than double the federal poverty guideline of $25,750 for a family of four.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed his own voucher expansion proposal, allowing students to be eligible if their family income is no higher than 265 percent, about $68,000.

In both proposals, the vouchers would not necessarily be for very poor students, which historically have benefited from the programs.

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