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Florida proposal seeks to clear the way for public funding of private schools

The chairwoman of the State Board of Education, charged with supervising Florida's system of free public education, has proposed amending the state Constitution to permit funding of some private schooling.

Marva Johnson, a Gov. Rick Scott appointee to the state board and the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, filed a proposal Tuesday to exempt education from the state's constitutional ban on using public funds for religious organizations.

She further recommended that state money go to private schools, including religious ones, to support students whose individual learning needs are not "completely met and accommodated" at their zoned public schools.

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Johnson was leading the commission's education committee Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. The committee next meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, and its agenda includes a presentation on "Public Funds for Aid of Sectarian Institutions."

The proposal is a long way from becoming reality. The commission would have to approve it, as would 60 percent of Florida voters.

But if the Constitution were amended as Johnson has proposed, it would set up a major shift, paving the way for state-funded school vouchers, something the Florida Supreme Court ruled a decade ago violate the Constitution. Lawmakers instead found other means to support children going to private education by creating a program that gives businesses a tax credit if they donate money to a scholarship funding organization, keeping the money out of the state's coffers.

Groups have attempted to challenge constitutionality of the program, which serves low-income children, but failed as recently as this year to demonstrate they had legal standing to sue because of the set up. As a result, key House members including Speaker Richard Corcoran, are looking at the tax credit model to establish another scholarship program that would allow students bullied in public schools to secure a scholarship to private schools.

If voters were to approve Johnson's proposal, the Legislature would gain the ability to more directly allocate tax revenue to private schools. Already, such spending occurs through programs such as voluntary prekindergarten.

That possibility did not go unnoticed by Floridians who have long fought to preserve and enhance funding for district schools.

Many of them took to social media to criticize Johnson's idea, which some called the "most damaging" amendment yet filed. At least one person suggested a partner amendment should seek to tax religious institutions.

Many saw the recommendation as an expected next step in what they see as the privatization of Florida's education system.

"The Board of Education is a politically appointed group of people. They're not elected. To hear that Marva Johnson is proposing something that fits neatly into the political agenda of Richard Corcoran is no surprise," said Kathleen Oropeza, a central Florida parent who sued the state in 2009, alleging it had not adequately funded public education.

Oropeza suggested the concept follows a clear line to universal vouchers, allowing the state to move away from its patchwork of school choice options that serve a small but growing percentage of Florida's nearly 3 million school-aged children.

She decried the notion of using the Constitution to support that agenda.

"We are the only state in the union that goes into the Constitution every 20 years and tries to put political spin into it," she said. "This is wrong."

Supporters of vouchers and other mechanisms to send public money to private education argue that families deserve more choices. They also contend that the best way to improve public schools is to prod them with outside competition.

A separate proposal before the commission calls for the complete deletion of the ban on government funds to religious organizations, known as the Blaine Amendment. Voters rejected repealing provision in 2012.

The 37-member commission will hold committee meetings through mid-December. At least 22 members must approve putting a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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