Agonizing over Amendment 8

Our preoccupation these days with a Florida amendment removing the state’s no-aid-to-religion clause may strike some redefinED readers as a touch obsessive, and we won’t argue the point. But the truth is that we agonize over whether to write at all, and we want to explain why.

At the end of the day, we are confident that Amendment 8, whether it passes or fails, will have no legal effect on school vouchers. And yet opponents so far have invested $1 million in a campaign that argues otherwise. They not only contend the amendment will open the door to new vouchers, but that those programs will be, to borrow the words of one elected Alachua County school board member, “the very death of public schools.”

So the quandary is obvious. We’re a blog built around the new definition of public education, run by an organization that administers private options to low-income students, and we think we can bring clarity to the issue. But how do we complain about a debate that we say is falsely about vouchers without being viewed as though we doth protest too much? How do we enter the volatile, polarizing world of political campaigns and not be viewed as an angry combatant?

This is shaping up as a most peculiar campaign. The pro- and anti-amendment forces are on two entirely different planets, one fighting against the scourge of vouchers and the other extolling the virtues of faith-based community services. And yet the legal landscape is unmistakable: The state Supreme Court overturned Opportunity Scholarship vouchers in 2006 through a public education uniformity clause that would be untouched by this amendment. In other words, the principle barrier to any new vouchers is not on the ballot. That’s one of the reasons, and this is important to note again, that no groups supporting parental choice are spending a penny on this campaign. They see it as legally irrelevant.

We admit taking offense at some of the liberties that have been taken so far with the legal truth. And we’re left only to speculate on why the opponents would spend so much on an amendment that means so little in the education world.

It is plausible that the Florida Education Association and the Florida School Boards Association are on some form of autopilot. Prior to the 2002 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling approving vouchers to faith-based schools and the 2006 Florida court ruling banning vouchers without reference to religion, the no-aid clause had a clear political history with school vouchers. So maybe they are reflexively fighting an old battle. To that point, we have talked in recent weeks to informed school district and union officials who genuinely were not aware that the state court overturned Opportunity Scholarships on constitutional grounds unrelated to the no-aid clause.

By the same token, the attorneys who work for these organizations know better. Note the following admission, which I’ve highlighted in italics, buried in a Florida School Boards Association Q&A about the amendment: “The other relevant Florida constitutional provision requires that Florida create one uniform public school system. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that this provision prohibits private school vouchers. … The passage of Amendment 8 would be the first step in allowing school vouchers.”

The phrase “first step in allowing school vouchers” is arguably an overstatement given the 2002 federal court decision, but it at least recognizes the prevailing Florida Supreme Court opinion. It also is a far cry from the words being uttered repeatedly in public. FSBA president Joie Cadle has said the amendment would “increase the financial strain on Florida’s education budget,” which is demonstrably false on two levels. FEA president Andy Ford opened the anti- campaign last year with a prepared statement that included: “This is a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all.”

One reasonable explanation might be that the union and FSBA are trying to fight a proxy war against universal vouchers. Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team recommended a form of universal vouchers and a bill was filed last year toward that end. It was only heard in one committee and was not filed again this year, but one “study” of the amendment’s cost by a group that includes union and school board members uses an equation that assumes every student currently in a private school would be given a voucher.

In this scenario, the union uses its financial and political clout to defeat the amendment and then portrays the vote as a rejection of universal vouchers in an attempt to stop progressive Republicans from voting for such a plan. If this is the actual game plan, it would certainly mark the campaign as a rather costly form of manipulation. Unfortunately, in a caustic political environment that represents modern American electioneering, voter misdirection is entirely too common. This one just hits home.

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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.