Written by Don Byrd

Advocates of a new school voucher system recently signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are counting on new members of the state’s supreme court to reach a different conclusion than those that ruled a similar law unconstitutional in 2006, when the new law inevitably faces a constitutional challenge. 

The new law (Senate Bill 7070) will use taxpayer funds to pay private school tuition – including religious school tuition – for 18,000 low-income Florida students. That’s a sweeping expansion of school vouchers in the state, but perhaps more importantly a different funding mechanism than the current tax-credit scholarship program, which takes the form of tax credits for private donations for tuition scholarships. Instead, the new vouchers will be funded directly with state dollars. That is exactly the kind of program the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2006.

While many expected the argument in that previous case to center on the state’s “no aid to religion” provision, the court based its ruling on a requirement in the state constitution that the state provide “uniform, free public schools.” The court held that funding a separate private school system that is “not subject to the uniformity requirements of the public school system” runs afoul of that principle. Because it was found unconstitutional on that basis, the court did not address the aid to religion question.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be raised in this new round of litigation, which seems sure to come. Here is a telling excerpt from a Tampa Bay Times report:

Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who represented teachers in fighting the Opportunity Scholarship authorized by then-Gov. Jeb Bush more than a decade ago, said the conversations have already begun.

“I have a number of education organizations and institutions that certainly have asked me to explore the possibility of a challenge to that act,” Meyer said.

There’s no imminent action expected, he said. But “there’s a lot of fertile ground for lawyers on this.”

The Baptist Joint Committee has long opposed school vouchers because they use public funds to support religious education.For more on why school vouchers are a bad idea for both the church and the state, see this 2011 column from the BJC’s Holly Hollman.