Florida's upcoming vote on private school vouchers and other forms of aid to religion is starting to attract national attention – and early signs are that this is going to be a hard-fought battle.
The Washington Post ran a story on the fight today. Although several Florida newspapers have covered the issue in depth, this is the first piece I'm aware of that puts it in national context.
If you're joining us late, here's what's going on: Florida, like about 37 other states, has a provision in its state constitution barring the diversion of tax funds for religious schools and institutions. The state also has a provision mandating a high-quality free public school system.
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, used an obscure state tax commission to engineer two initiatives onto the November ballot that would rewrite those provisions and legalize school vouchers and other forms of aid to religion in the state.
Every poll I've seen on vouchers shows that they are unpopular. Thus, these initiatives never use the word "voucher." Instead, voucher proponents are arguing that unless this provision is removed, the state won't be able to work with religious groups to help those in need.
Patricia Levesque, the tax commission member (and Bob Jones University graduate) who promoted the ballot initiatives on Bush's behalf, told The Post that the current constitution threatens the state's ability to work with religious groups to provide social programs like substance-abuse education, prisoner reentry and foster care.
"[W]e're going to have hundreds of millions of dollars of programs that the state will have to take over because we won't have faith-based providers participating anymore," Levesque said.
These are scare tactics, pure and simple. Voucher opponents point out that the state has worked with religious groups on secular social service projects for years with no problems. Levesque, who served as Bush's education policy chief and now runs two pro-voucher groups for Bush, is trying to slip a massive voucher plan past the voters by disguising it as a benign "faith-based" program.
Voucher supporters don't have a very good track record when it comes to rewriting state constitutions. Voters have repeatedly rejected voucher referenda at the polls, usually by sweeping margins. But the voucher gang has learned from past defeats and is getting a lot more devious, promoting language that never mentions the "v-word" and portraying themselves as defenders of religion.
To make matters worse, they've packaged one of the initiatives with a school funding requirement designed to mislead voters into thinking public school classrooms will get more money if the proposal passes. What a scam!
If the Bush crew gets away with this in Florida, you can bet they'll move on to other states and eviscerate church-state language there.
The voucher boosters have signaled they intend to play hardball in Florida. They won't hesitate to use deception. Our challenge is to make sure Sunshine State residents have the facts and understand all that is at stake.