Once again: Florida’s Amendment 8 is NOT about private school vouchers

Editor’s note: This op-ed appeared in today’s Tampa Bay Times.

Few public issues are as absorbing as the balance between religion and government, so a ballot initiative that aims to change the boundary is worthy of rigorous debate. Instead, Florida’s Amendment 8 is being treated to a proxy campaign on school vouchers.

A new radio ad by the Florida Education Association: “Amendment 8 allows the government to give our tax dollars to any group claiming to be a religious organization, so any religious group or sect can use our money to fund their own religious schools.”

FEA president Andy Ford: “This is designed to open the state treasury to voucher schools.”

Alachua School Board member Eileen Roy: “It’s the very death of public schools. That’s not overstating it, in my opinion.”

These are provocative arguments, to be sure, but they are basically irrelevant. The amendment was placed on the ballot by two legislators — Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood — who have said repeatedly they want to protect religiously based social services. Their interest was piqued by a lawsuit, Council for Secular Humanism vs. McNeil, that challenges a prison ministries program, and by the fact that the New York-based council has called it “a springboard to mounting other challenges.”

In turn, the pro-Amendment 8 campaign is being led by a coalition of community-service providers and religious leaders who have raised less than $100,000 to date. They believe that if the secular humanists will sue over prison ministries, they might one day challenge the Catholic Charities or Catholic hospitals or the YMCA. After all, the current constitutional language is explicit: “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.”

Now it is certainly true that voucher advocates have previously pushed to alter the no-aid clause. But it is just as clear that they played no role in getting this amendment on the ballot and, most telling, have raised not a penny for the campaign. Their reasons are pragmatic, not philosophical: Federal and state court decisions in recent years have rendered the no-aid clause all but moot as it relates to school choice. Read full editorial here.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.