Written by Don Byrd
A plan by new Governor Ron DeSantis to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program passed a Florida House committee last week. Like other voucher systems, Florida’s funding scheme sends taxpayer funds to private schools, including religious schools.
As the St. Augustine Record reports, the expansion plan could conflict with a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision striking down a state-wide voucher system as unconstitutional.
Republicans who control the governor’s office and both the House and Senate see the plan as the best way to meet the growing demand for the tax credit scholarships, which are structured in a manner that keeps them from becoming entangled in the Supreme Court ruling which derailed Bush’s first voucher plan.
But the new proposal, which would directly tap into the state’s general revenue fund, looks poised to slam right into that constitutional ruling. If challenged by opponents, it could give a Florida Supreme Court which now includes three new DeSantis appointees a chance to re-think the court’s earlier ban on public dollars going to private schools.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, newly elected Governor Bill Lee has proposed a school voucher system in that state in the form of education savings accounts that would fund 5,000 students initially and expand over time. Previous school voucher proposals have failed to pass Tennessee’s legislature, but Governor Lee has made it a key initiative in his new administration. The proposal also includes an expansion of the state’s charter school system, which has faced its own charges of improper religious instructions, as Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston chronicled in a blog post re-printed in the Washington Post.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has long opposed school vouchers because they use taxpayer money to pay for primarily religious education. While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers do not violate the religious liberty guarantees in the federal constitution, several state constitutions provide greater protection against funding religion. More importantly, even if they are allowed, that doesn’t make them a good idea. Vouchers undermine a central principle behind the institutional separation of church and state: that taxpayers should not be forced to fund religion. Legislators should stay out of the business of religious education, directly or indirectly.