Alachua County school board member Eileen Roy has called a proposed constitutional amendment coming before voters in November “the very death of public schools.”
The state’s largest teacher’s union is running ads against the change and mobilizing teachers to get out and vote against it.
Amendment 8 – dubbed the Religious Freedom Amendment – is likely to be one of the most contested ballot questions this fall.
The big question: Will it take taxpayer dollars away from public schools — to fund private, religious schools?
The answer: No, not directly…at least not yet. But passing the amendment could lay the groundwork for a future voucher campaign.
The Blaine Amendment
Let’s start from the very beginning – the late 1800’s.
That’s when Catholic, Irish, Italian and German immigrants were coming to the country in large numbers – and the Protestant majority wanted to make sure that public dollars would never fund private, Catholic schools.
Enter James G. Blaine, who once served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and ran for president three times. Blaine introduced the amendment which bears his name in 1875.
The federal amendment failed, but more than 30 states adopted similar language.
In Florida, the constitution reads:
“No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
For 127 years the state constitution has prohibited direct public support of churches or their programs.
But a one-sentence amendment could tear down that firewall. Amendment 8 would re-write the constitution to say that:
“No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.”
Supporters argue that the change would ensure social services provided by churches or sectarian groups could continue to receive money. Those include prison ministries or disaster relief efforts.
Supporters argue those programs could be cut off if challenged in court.
“These are not luxuries,” Jim Frankowiak with pro-Amendment 8 group Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination told the News Service of Florida. “These are the basics for many people.”
The U.S. Constitution still prohibits any government from promoting or endorsing a religion, he said.
But schools officials see things differently.
“What it really does is take money away from our public schools,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the Miami-Dade teacher’s union.
“This has nothing to do with religion,” she said. “We honor everybody’s faith and their ability to practice their faith, but we are saying do not strip our public schools of monies they need to do the job we’re asked to do for children of all faiths.”
Not Black and White
Aronowitz and others say it would pave the way for the return of vouchers. Vouchers are like a coupon from the state that any student could use to pay for private school tuition.
Florida used to have a voucher program open to anyone who wanted to attend a private school.
Amendment 8 would apply to any public institution. But when it comes to school funding it’s not so black and white.
That’s because the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that another section of the state constitution – Article IX — already prevents Florida’s government from taking taxpayer dollars and using them to fund private schools. The Religious Freedom Amendment would only change Article I, section 3 of the Florida constitution.
The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris states there is no absolute ban on using public money to pay for private school tuition if the decision is left to parents.
That’s how Florida’s private school tax credit scholarship for low-income students works.
So Amendment 8 would have no effect on vouchers, says Doug Tuthill with Step Up For Students, the nonprofit which administers Florida’s private school tax credit scholarship program.
“When the Florida Supreme Court says, look, this issue is no longer relevant for K-12 education as it relates to choice in private schools and religious schools,” Tuthill said. “That’s a strong indication that the issue really isn’t about K-12 education.”
Paving the Way?
Only another constitutional amendment or a court ruling could make vouchers legal again, Tuthill said.
He says The Religious Freedom Amendment doesn’t directly affect public school funding.
But passing Amendment 8 could pave the way for public funding of religious schools if voters approve another amendment.
“There are some folks that talk about school vouchers and there are other folks who say it has nothing to do with school vouchers,” Carvajal said, “and to some degree both are right.
“What it does is open the door by saying the government could fund activities of religious institutions. And that can include education, hospital programs and others that are affiliated with religious entities,” he said. “This is a multi-stage process if it is going to apply to education in religiously affiliated schools.”
The debate over Amendment 8 shows a secondary effect of the ballot questions – they are a way to strongly motivate voters.
University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said a ballot measure designed to appeal to the base of one political party is also likely to rile the base of the opposing party.
“For many, many, many election cycles now, both parties have used amendments as get out the vote tool,” she said. “Both the Democrats and the Republican-leaning groups have had amendments on the ballot at the same time that appeal to their base. And so each side was using them at the same time, in Florida.”
The Religious Freedom Amendment may not have been designed to turn out voters, she said, but it’s likely to have that effect.
So here’s what Amendment 8 boils down to:
A no vote means you want to maintain the state ban on religious organizations getting public money — possibly including church-provided social services.
A yes vote means you want to remove the ban — which could eventually, maybe allow taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools.