Sun Sentinel // Editorial
The Florida Constitution Revision Commission is pursuing a radical agenda to undermine public schools and send public money to churches, mosques and synagogues.
Today, a committee may well vote to repeal Florida’s historic ban on state aid to religious institutions, including religious schools.
And it may vote to rip apart the constitutional requirement that there be a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.”
This is wrong, all of it. And we doubt strongly that the people of Florida, who will have the last word on the commission’s recommendations, are as hostile to the public schools, or to the separation of church and state, as some politicians take them to be.
Florida voters in 2012 emphatically defeated amendments to allow tax support of religious institutions and weaken maximum class-size requirements. And in 1998, they strongly supported an amendment to strengthen public schools by defining the education of children as a “paramount duty of the state.”
The wrecking crew on today’s commission is ignoring a painful lesson voters taught the first commission in 1978: Don’t bite off more than Floridians care to chew.
The 1978 panel overreached by proposing to abolish the elected Cabinet. Voters rejected that proposal 3-1, dragging down everything else the commissioners had proposed.
That fight wasn’t personal for most voters. The fate of the schools will be. Nearly all Floridians owe their education to public schools or have children or grandchildren who do. The commissioners should focus on improving the schools, not on sabotage. Otherwise, they risk wasting their once-in-a-generation opportunity to send constitutional amendments directly to the ballot.
As with any human institution, public schools can benefit from constructive criticism. There would be less cause for it, however, if Florida’s politicians and parents invested the attention and money the schools deserve.
Society is far more complex than in the imperfectly remembered “good old days,” and public schools are tasked with problems such as poverty and racial bias that were once routinely ignored. It takes more than wishful thinking to get a child reading at grade level if no one ever read to her at home or her parents talk to the teacher only to complain. There is little a teacher can do to make up for what a parent won’t do.
Plus, the Legislature has given private schools a competitive advantage over public schools. They don’t have to provide transportation, lunches or counseling. Their students aren’t rigorously tested and they can reject or expel pupils the public schools must take.
A Nov. 14 Education Week article describes Florida’s private school sector as “largely unregulated … with wide latitude over who it admits, who it kicks out, and few requirements for informing the public on how it serves students who are attending its schools with the help of taxpayer funds.”
The article also told the story of a middle school student from Jupiter whose mother, upset with her public school, put her in a private school that soon closed. A second turned her down because she was lagging academically. A third kicked her out after the mother complained of bullying. Officials in Tallahassee did nothing. The child is now back in public school and doing well.
The anti-public school proposals appear to have the backing of Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whose appointees are sponsoring most of them. Marva Johnson, whose Proposal 59 would lift the ban on public funding of private schools, is a Scott appointee who also chairs the State Board of Education.
Other harmful proposals include 45 and 71, which would enable the Legislature to spend money on private schools and authorize charter schools without local school board input. Both are by Commissioner Erika Donalds of Naples. To her credit, however, is proposal 33, calling for the appointment, rather than election, of all school superintendents.
Another questionable proposal is number 93, by Commissioner Roberto Martinez, to let “high performing” school districts opt out of state regulation by becoming charter districts.
His politically explosive Proposal 4, which would repeal the ban on sending taxpayer dollars to religious schools and organizations, is also on today’s agenda for the Declaration of Rights Committee, which seems predisposed to favor it. The only scheduled speaker on the subject is a Tallahassee lawyer who advocates for private schools. However, Lisa Carlton, the chair, says opponents will be heard.
Martinez, a former U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Southern District, contends the ban is unconstitutional under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a church school in Missouri to receive playground equipment from the state on the same basis as nonreligious schools.
There is sharp disagreement on his contention. David Barkey of Boca Raton, national religious freedom counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, argues that it was a narrow decision limited to playground resurfacing, not religious instruction.
Florida’s separation of church and state was originally proclaimed in its 1885 constitution, and readopted by amendments in 1968 and 1998.
Since the days of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it has been a fundamental tenet of American democracy that we don’t tax people to pay for other people’s religious practices. Our religious institutions are stronger, not weaker, for not being dependent on government handouts like the established church in colonial Virginia was. Jefferson’s 10-year struggle to end that was the origin of the First Amendment.
The Constitution Revision Commission should not tamper with what has worked so well, for so long, for Florida and for the nation.