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Major school voucher expansion proposals won't be on November ballot

Donalds
Commissioner Erika Donalds speaks during a CRC meeting last week on the floor of the Florida Senate. | Florida Channel

When the members of the Constitution Revision Commission were appointed by Florida's top political leaders, the list was full of prominent school choice advocates. It seemed the CRC was gearing up to amend Florida's constitution to finally allow for the major expansion of school vouchers the Legislature has long sought.

Instead, the 37-member commission dropped its two major voucher expansion proposals last week — and the CRC only meets every 20 years to determine constitutional amendments to put on the ballot.

"There is somewhat of a consensus this is going to be resolved by the courts," said CRC member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped found a charter school there. Her husband is state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican member from Naples.

"In both cases, I think there is great support for both of those ideas on the CRC which is what makes it even harder not to move forward with it ... (but) I try to step back and look at the big picture at what can only be fixed through the constitution."

Proposal 4 would have struck the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution — which prohibits public money from going to any religious institution, and thus any religiously affiliated private school.

After a short but robust debate on Wednesday, that proposal was "temporarily postponed."

Donalds said they will not bring it up again.

She also withdrew proposal 45, which would have added language to the constitution saying "nothing herein may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services ... that are in addition to the system of free public schools."

Both proposals would have paved the way for a major expansion of vouchers by the Legislature, which have so far been limited to students with particular needs, such as being low-income, a victim of bullying or having a disability.

Donalds said several recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the a decision last year allowing public money to go toward a playground at a church — have made school choice advocates confident that the justices will eventually undo the 2007 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Holmes, that declared the state's voucher program unconstitutional.

For that to happen, someone must again challenge Florida's voucher programs.

But any proposals that make it to the ballot in the general election must receive at least 60 percent support to make it into the constitution, and recent polling done by Clearview Research found that Proposal 4 fell far below that threshold. Clearview often does work for Democratic causes but this poll was not done for any particular client, according to president Steven Vancore.

Only 41 percent of respondents said they would vote "yes" on the proposal and 51 percent of respondents declared they would vote "no." The research firm did not conduct polling on proposal 45.

The Florida Education Association opined that the polling was more likely the reason for the proposals' removal from consideration by the CRC. A similar amendment was also on the ballot in 2012 and it was defeated.

"There was no reason to submit the same proposal to the voters again especially after  polling was released that shows the voters really haven’t changed their minds on funding religious programs," said FEA president Joanne McCall.

Whatever the reason, Floridians won't be voting on voucher expansion on November's ballot. Instead, the remaining education proposals include term limits for school board members and a program for high-performing districts to have charter-like flexibility on certain regulations for hiring and facilities.

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