How do you interpret that clause to keep the state from giving vouchers for private school to children who are stuck in failing public schools?
"[The Opportunity Scholarships Program] diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida's children," the ruling said. "This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not 'uniform' when compared with each other or the public system."...That is the state supreme court's view of it, and the only way around it is to amend the state constitution (or get the state supreme court to overrule it).
Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente, who wrote the court's majority ruling, said that private schools are not "uniform," partly because they are exempt from many requirements imposed on public schools, including standardized tests and teacher credentialing rules.
Does the case mean anything outside of Florida?
Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College who has written widely on voucher programs, called the Florida ruling important because many state constitutions have provisions similar to Florida's, requiring that public education be "uniform."In the past, we saw a United States Supreme Court case about school vouchers (Zelman), where the challenge was based on the U.S. Constitution and the focus was on the fact that many of the private school were religious. The Supreme Court rejected that Establishment Clause challenge. So the new direction for litigation is into the state courts, using state constitutional provisions that address the obligation of the state to provide a system of free public education.
"It signals a direction that litigation may go in the future, offering a strategy for people who may want to strike voucher programs down," he said.
I think it makes a lot of sense for the question of the voucher programs to take place at this level. It really is a dispute about how education should be structured and public money spent. You may think the state court went too far, reading too much meaning into that state constitutional clause in pursuit of its own policy preferences, but it's not all that hard to change a state constitution -- unlike the federal Constitution. If the people of the state really want the program, they can get it. And if they don't like they approach to state constitutional law their state judges take, there are democratic solutions to that too.