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Friday, December 30, 2011

Florida the state where education is an after thought, a nussance to Tallahassee

From the Palm Beach Post

by Jack Wilder Versteeg

'This next year is going to be chaos. Absolute chaos. And to watch my party get up and say, if you had 10 bucks of spending cuts and one buck of tax increases, they wouldn't take it - it looked like nine robot hands went up out of the mechanical morass.'

Former Republican Sen. ALAN SIMPSON, co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles commission, on the prospects of a debt-reduction deal in 2012.

'The American people still don't believe you need to make hard choices. They believe you should balance the budget. But when it comes down to doing the things that need to be done to accomplish that, they don't support them. Until the American people believe we need to change some things, it's unlikely we're going to accomplish them here.'

Senate Budget Committee Chairman KENT CONRAD, D-N.D.

When it comes to public education, the Florida Constitution is a blunt instrument. As such, it is more suited to mayhem than nurturing.

Voters intended to nurture public education when, in 1998, they amended the constitution to declare that providing a "high quality" public education is "a paramount duty" of the state. A current lawsuit that relies on that provision asks the courts to order the Legislature to give public schools more money and quit harassing teachers with FCAT-based school grades and performance reviews. Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford has ruled that courts have that authority, if the plaintiffs were to prevail. The 1st District Court of Appeal sort of agreed, but mostly asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in.

Maybe the high court will allow courts to force lawmakers to cough up more money for schools, but I'd be stunned. Most likely, the "paramount duty" language will remain what it's always been: a noble sentiment with no practical impact.

Of equal note, Judge Fulford's colleague on the Leon County circuit bench, Judge Terry Lewis, has issued a ruling that, if it stands up, would stop the enemies of public education from wielding a new constitutional bludgeon. This spring the Legislature endorsed a constitutional amendment for the November 2012 ballot that, if approved, would kill off the current constitutional prohibition against giving state money to religious institutions. That prohibition is the only thing that has kept Tallahassee from giving vouchers to every parent who wants to send his or her child to a private religious school.

The Legislature called its proposed constitutional change the "Religious Freedom" amendment. Nobody would vote against "Religious Freedom," right? But Judge Lewis correctly ruled that the Legislature's language describing the amendment was deceptive. Leave it to our lawmakers to lie in the service of religion.

The lawmakers claim that Florida's prohibition against giving state money directly to religious institutions amounts to discrimination against religion.

In fact, it is the purest way to keep from favoring one religion over another or from "establishing" a religion. In other words, a ban on direct aid to religious organizations is the best way to uphold the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Florida already has gone too far in finding clever ways to give money to religious schools. The state allows private groups to raise money to give vouchers to low-income students. Those voucher recipients then can choose private religious schools. The corporations that contribute to those private groups then get to take a dollar-for-dollar deduction from taxes owed to Florida.

That little dodge costs the state millions of dollars. And it probably produces a crop of poorly educated kids. But if those students aren't doing as well as students in traditional public schools, Florida doesn't want to know about it. Voucher students in those religious schools don't take the FCAT.

Judge Lewis' ruling isn't final. Attorney General Pam Bondi made minor changes to the wording that probably pass legal muster but don't make clear that the proposed amendment is about vouchers. The word vouchers still doesn't appear. So, to me, it's still deceptive.

Those who disagree with my premise that constitutional changes more easily harm than help education might point to the class-size amendment of 2002. It offers a string of lessons about Florida, not all of them good.

First, the Legislature refused to fully pay for the amendment. Then in the last session, legislators rewrote the rules to radically reduce the type and number of classes that had to comply with the enrollment caps. That end-around the constitution produced barely a ripple of public protest.

Meanwhile, the man who led the drive to put the class-size amendment into the constitution, Kendrick Meek, lost his 2010 bid to become a U.S. senator. Florida voters also rejected in that race Charlie Crist, who as governor in 2010 vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to fire teachers based on students' FCAT scores.

Voters elected instead Marco Rubio, who as a legislative leader fully backed Jeb Bush's FCAT follies. In the same election, Florida voters chose a governor who promptly signed a version of the bill Mr. Crist had vetoed.

Voters say they want good public education when it's some vague thing in the Florida Constitution. But when it comes to electing people who will make it happen by, say, paying for it and not giving away resources to religious schools? The message could not be more blunt.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is deputy editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His e-mail address is Randy Schultz's column returns next week.

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