Florida unaffected by high court ruling on public aid for private schools

The U.S. Supreme Court made big news in school choice circles this week with its ruling that states may not exclude religious schools when offering private school vouchers.

However, Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, said he barely paid attention to the decision, known as Carson vs. Makin, concerning a scholarship program in Maine.

“That is not a case that we were following,” said Pastura, the leader of a system that last year enrolled 4,461 students who participated in one of Florida’s scholarship or voucher programs. “It really wouldn’t have affected us here in Florida.”

Florida has offered tax credit scholarships since 2001. That program allows donors to contribute to a scholarship funding organization in lieu of certain state taxes. The organization then distributes scholarships to families, which can use them at any eligible private school including religious ones.

The Legislature expanded the program in 2019 to include state-funded vouchers called Family Empowerment Scholarships. Those also allow parents to take the money to schools that teach religion.

Together, the two programs helped more than 153,000 low-income and working class children attend nearly 2,050 private schools in 2021-22.

Florida also has offered state-funded private school scholarships to students with special needs since 1999. All private schools, religious or not, are eligible to receive those funds. The same is true for Voluntary Prekindergarten vouchers, which began in 2005.

Patrick Gibbons, policy and public affairs manager for the scholarship funding organization Step Up For Students, said the Supreme Court would have impacted Florida’s model only if it had upheld the Maine program that was under review.

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The Maine law in question provided tuition assistance for students to attend private schools if no public schools were available to them. It denied funding for students choosing to attend religious schools, which the plaintiffs contended was discrimination against religion.

“As it stands, Florida’s current school choice law does not discriminate against religious status or use,” Gibbons said. “Operators are free to create religious and non-religious schools alike.”

The 6-3 ruling, handed down Tuesday, does not require states to establish voucher programs. But if they do, they would be held to the direction in the Carson case.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion for the court’s conservative majority. Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the court’s two other liberal justices in dissent, writing: “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”

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Others reacted differently.

“The essential promise of the First Amendment’s religion clause is to guarantee religious freedom in the United States by requiring government neutrality toward religion,” Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said in a statement. “A state discriminating against religion — as Maine did in its tuition assistance program — is just as unconstitutional as a state promoting one particular religion.”

Diament’s organization participated in the case.

Pastura applauded the decision as a victory for religious liberty, as well as for providing education options for families.

“We welcome the students who are able to use the Florida programs,” he said. “It’s been very, beneficial to a lot of families.”

Information from Associated Press was included in this report.

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