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State judge strikes down Florida voucher law

By The Associated Press


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A. A. Dixon Ele...
A. A. Dixon Elementary School Principal Judith Ladner, left, and Gov. Jeb Bush talk on Aug. 13 in Pensacola, Fla., with Mary E. Smith, mother of two former Dixon students who were to attend private school at public expense under Bush's voucher program.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A state judge threw out the nation's first statewide school voucher system yesterday, ruling that Florida's Constitution bars public money from being spent on private education.

Fifty-two children attending private schools in Pensacola under the program can finish the year, but the state can't implement the law in any other way, Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. said.

Citing a state constitutional provision, he wrote, "Tax dollars may not be used to send the children of this state to private schools."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed the program, promised to find the money to keep it going despite what happens in court. An appeal is certain. "We'll raise the money," Bush said. "This is the first inning of a long, drawn-out legal battle."

Ron Meyer, an attorney challenging vouchers for a coalition that includes a teachers union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Florida Parent Teacher Association, the League of Women Voters and a handful of families and educators, claimed victory. "We won it lock, stock and barrel," he said.

School vouchers are likely to surface in the presidential race, with Bush's brother, GOP contender George W. Bush, in support of vouchers but Democrat Al Gore flatly opposed.

Under the program, students at poorly rated Florida schools can seek the vouchers for private school tuition at taxpayer expense. Voucher values are generally worth $3,000 to $4,000.

Smith did not reach the separation of church and state issue, concluding without hearing evidence that the law violated the Florida Constitution's mandate of a free education through a system of "public schools."

Voucher programs in cities in Maine, Vermont, Ohio and Pennsylvania have all been invalidated on church-state grounds. Milwaukee has the only voucher program using tax dollars to help subsidize education at private schools that has not been struck down.

Andrew H. Kayton, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told that it was becoming evident that "at this point in time, courts are not putting a stamp of approval on voucher programs that involve subsidization of private schools."

He added, "with all due respect to the governor, it would be wise for him to go back to the drawing board and initiate real education reform rather than devoting resources to protracting litigation that in all probability would be a losing cause for his office."

— The Freedom Forum Online staff contributed to this report.