Putting Education Reform To The Test

What To Know About Florida’s Amendment 8

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Amendment 8 will be everywhere this fall.

Politics and history are mixing in the debate over Amendment 8 on this fall’s ballot, The News Service of Florida reports.

Amendment 8 would delete language from the Florida Constitution banning public money spent “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

(You can read the ballot question wording, and how it would amend the state constitution, here.)

Here’s how the News Service of Florida frames the debate:

For supporters of the amendment, failure to adopt it could cripple faith-based organizations, putting them “one lawsuit away” from losing vital taxpayer dollars for services like prison ministries, soup kitchens and disaster relief. But opponents say overturning the 127-year-old ban would dismantle a critical bulwark of the separation of church and state and open the door for vouchers that would siphon money away from public education.

Those who back the amendment say the original no-aid provision of the constitution was approved as part of a wave of measures, known as “Blaine amendments” for their federal sponsor, adopted in the latter half of the 19th Century to ensure that Catholic private schools would never receive taxpayer money, despite the Protestant tilt of public schools.

Aside from school-choice litigation, the provision has largely lingered since then. But supporters of the amendment say it became a threat again after a group known as the Council for Secular Humanism filed suit to cut off state support for two prison ministries run by faith-based organizations. If the suit succeeds, supporters of the amendment fear, a wide swath of social services could be disrupted.

The issue will likely be one of the most contentious in the fall’s election.

Supporters and opponents have already taken the debate to Facebook. And radio ads urging people to vote against the amendment are running in some Florida markets.

Jon East, who handles policy and communications for the non-profit which manages Florida’s low-income private school scholarship program, says the amendment will not open the door to private schools:

First, the no-aid clause is irrelevant to Florida’s current judicial precedent on school vouchers. The state Supreme Court, in its 2006 Bush v. Holmes ruling, found Opportunity Scholarships to be unconstitutional because they violated Article IX provisions requiring a “uniform” public school system. The court, in fact, steered clear of a lower court ruling that invalidated the scholarships based on the Blaine Amendment – a decision that may well have been influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision. In Zelman, the U.S. Supreme Court found parents could use public funds to pay for religious schools provided the parents were making a genuine and independent choice. In all of Florida’s private school choice programs, parents control which school receives the public funds. There is no government coercion.

Second, the largest private learning option in the state, tax credit scholarships that served 40,249 low-income students this past year, is constitutionally distinct from vouchers.

But opponent aren’t buying that argument.

The Alachua County school board approved a resolution opposing Amendment 8. Board member Eileen Roy summed it up this way, according to the Gainesville Sun:

“It’s the very death of public schools,” she said. “That’s not overstating it, in my opinion.”

We’ll be covering the debate throughout the fall, so stay tuned.


  • Four problems with the arguments in favor of this (Part I of II):

    1) The only threat supporters have referenced is one case that started in 2007 and still hasn’t gone to trial. One case. Furthermore, that one case specifically targeted two groups who were using their their position, and the money they got by the state, to actively preach Christian doctrine rather than supplying the service (rehab and transitional services for ex-prisoners) in a non-discriminatory manner. It is not a blanket case against all religious service providers. If the soup kitchen is getting any funds from state programs now, leaving the language as it is will not threaten that funding.

    2) The argument claiming voucher opponents have nothing to worry about because of the court ruling on the Title IX language, is incredibly misleading. Three of the judges who voted to strike down the Bush voucher plan via the Title IX language have been put on the ballot for retention. Should those three not be retained, three new vacancies will be filled by Gov. Rick Scott.

    It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to think this has nothing to do with vouchers since the former Gov. is reported to have written a letter of advice to Scott:

    “Bush also recommended that Scott push ahead with ‘education savings accounts’ or a form of universal private school vouchers.

    Bush acknowledged such a move would probably lead to legal challenges.

    ‘I am guessing lawyers inside Tallahassee will say that it is not constitutional,’ wrote Bush. ‘I don’t know how our court will respond but it will be a game changer for the country and you might have the chance to change the makeup of the court.’”


  • Part II of II

    The whole court rulings issue is further muddied by the presence of Amendment 5 on the ballot as well. Amendment 5 would allow the legislature to overturn court rulings with a simple majority vote rather than the current 2/3s vote. That should frighten everyone, no matter what you think about Amendment 8
    The language is, as always, so vague as to leave lots of questions unanswered. Would a Yes on 8 vote mean state monies will go unfettered into church coffers, for active preaching purposes in addition to the service provided? Or would the government still retain control of the pursestrings via regulations and will the groups applying for the funding be able to comply with the regulation? Who will oversee that these groups are properly ‘playing by the rules’? What additional costs might that add to the budget?

    As not one of the record # of 11 amendments was put on this year’s ballot by a citizens’ petition drive (all put on the by legislature in the last session, same with the justice retention measure) it is hardly a tin-foil hat idea to think they could be inter-related legs of a three-legged stool, as it were.

    Vote NO on 8/Vote NO on 5/Vote YES to retain the justices.

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