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Jeb Bush And His Cronies Have Big Plans for Govt.-Funded Religious Schools in Florida

Religious school scheme backed by the former Fla. governor has provoked a church-state showdown with national ramifications.
 
 
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Dade County, Fla., is home to almost 200 religious schools.

According to the Florida Department of Education’s data from the 2006-2007 school year, an array of denominations and faith perspectives is represented. Forty-five schools are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, but many other spiritual traditions answered the state roll call.

All Angels Academy is Episcopalian, Christ Fellowship Academy is Baptist, Clara Mohammed School of Miami is Islamic, Greater Miami Hebrew Academy is Jewish, World Mission of Jesus Christ Christian is non-denominational, New Testament Church of Transfiguration School is Pentecostal and Glory of God Christian School is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Some are well-established and fully accredited with a qualified teaching staff and a tradition of educational excellence. Others are small, poorly equipped and devoted to religious indoctrination, not academic accomplishment.

If former Gov. Jeb Bush and his allies have their way, however, all of these schools – and private academies like them around the state – will soon be eligible for massive new streams of public funding, courtesy of the state’s taxpayers.

Bush has engineered onto the November ballot two initiatives that would eliminate the state constitution’s strict church-state separation provisions, mandate funding of religion and water down language requiring a quality public school system.

For advocates of church-state separation and strong public schools, it’s a political showdown with breath-taking possible consequences.

How did the Sunshine State find itself in this predicament? It’s the culmination of a convoluted plot.

In 1999, Bush pushed through the legislature an “Opportunity Scholarship Program” that gave students in “failing” public schools state funding for tuition at religious and other private academies. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and allied groups immediately challenged the voucher scheme in state court.

After years of legal wrangling, the Florida Supreme Court finally struck down the program in January 2006. The 5-2 court majority said vouchers violated a provision of the state constitution requiring a uniform system of free public schools.

Bush, an ardent advocate of “faith-based” solutions to public problems, was livid and vowed to press for a constitutional amendment. But he found more difficulty in the state legislature than expected. In May 2006, the proposed constitutional amendment fell short by one vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, despite a lot of hardball political pressure from the governor and his allies.

Bush then reached for Plan B. He left office in January 2007, but he and his top advisers crafted a back-door maneuver to revise the state constitution and advance vouchers. They decide to stack the state’s Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

The Commission, a 25-member panel created only once every 20 years, is supposed to study the state’s tax code, revenue needs and expenditures and find ways to address financial problems. It has the power, by a two-thirds vote, to place initiatives directly on the ballot, bypassing the legislature and other governmental checks and balances.

Commission members are appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker. (Four members serve ex officio and have no voting rights on the body.)

To achieve his goals, Bush arranged with Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint Greg Turbeville, a former Bush policy director, and other voucher advocates to the Commission. House Speaker Marco Rubio (R-Miami/Dade) helped the scheme along by appointing Bush education adviser Patricia Levesque and other voucher fans.

Levesque was controversial as Bush’s education adviser. She is a graduate of Bob Jones University, the arch-fundamentalist South Carolina school notorious for its racial and religious intolerance. Today, she serves as executive director of Bush’s pro-voucher Foundation for Florida’s Future as well as his Foundation for Excellence in Education.

News media soon alerted the public to the Bush plot. Tallahassee Bureau Chief S.V. Date of the Palm Beach Post obtained Levesque’s e-mails under the open records law. They solicited assistance from the wealthy organizations that supported the Bush voucher program as she worked to craft the constitutional amendments.

“I’m still trying to figure out the right language,” Levesque said.

Some Commission members were upset that the Bush agents were diverting attention to his pet project instead of dealing with the state’s serious financial problems.

“I don’t think it’s our job to be getting into fights with the courts,” said Les Miller, a former Democratic senator from Tampa. “The Supreme Court has spoken, and they have said it is unconstitutional.”

Even some voucher boosters on the Commission were appalled. Former Senate President John McKay, who successfully pushed through a voucher program for disabled students that is still on the books, told the newspaper, “I think I’d be very cautious about it getting outside taxes and budget issues.”

But the Bush cronies forged ahead. In April, the Commission voted to place two initiatives on the November ballot.

Amendment 7 would strike current constitutional language that forbids the use of any public funds “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” In place of those words, Article I, Section 3 would assert, “An individual or entity may not be barred from participating in any public program because of religion.”

Amendment 9 would eviscerate the constitution’s strong language requiring, as a “paramount duty of the state,” the provision of a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” The amendment revises Article IX, Section 1 to state that “this duty shall be fulfilled, at a minimum and not exclusively” through public schools.

To make matters worse, the Bush forces combined the attack on public schools with a measure requiring that at least 65 percent of public school funds be spent on classroom activities. Voucher boosters think the spending measure will be popular with parents and could help win public approval for the funding diversion to private schools.

Analysts said the two amendments combined would eliminate any state constitutional barriers to tax aid for religious schools and other ministries of all sorts, and some experts thought the vague wording might even require public funding of “faith-based” social services, even if they evangelize and discriminate in hiring.

Opponents on the Commission were outraged.

According to the Tampa Tribune, House Minority Leader Dan Gelber said, “I think this is as wrong-headed a proposal as this Commission could come up with.”

Gelber argued that it not only allowed vouchers, but also required them. Other critics said the plan would cost the state $2 billion in additional revenues.

Many of the state’s leading newspapers deplored the Commission’s actions. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel said the ballot proposals “seem more about pushing warmed-over ideology than implementing meaningful fiscal reform.” The Palm Beach Post said the Commission “chose politics over public responsibility” in signing off on “Jeb Bush’s anti-public education agenda.”

The St. Petersburg Times warned that the ballot amendments “will make Florida a national battleground” and “the campaign will be ugly, costly, divisive – and just the kind of politics that Bush relished.”

The Times added, “The way the Commission put the items on the ballot hints at the deceptions that lie ahead. Neither question mentions the word ‘voucher.’… Call this Bush’s post-gubernatorial ‘devious plan.’”

Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen opined, “If the measure passes, Florida would be the first state in the country to formally trash the concept that the roles of church and government should be separate.”

The Bradenton Herald was even more critical.

“Though voucher proponents cast their zeal in the shining light of a better education for all students,” the newspaper said, “this is just a way for rich people to subsidize their children’s private schooling. Would right-wing Republicans ever push for vouchers if they truly benefited the poor? No. This is a cynical attempt to undermine public education and further divide the classes.”

To become part of the state constitution, the amendments must be approved by 60 percent of the voters in November. The school initiatives will be on the ballot with seven other referenda, including one that would ban same-sex marriage.

The drive to win public approval of the pro-voucher amendments has powerful backers. Bush’s wealthy political allies are certain to contribute generously to the effort.

After the Commission vote, Bush stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight to praise the action.

“Thanks to the good work of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission,” Bush said, “Florida voters, not activist jurists, will ultimately decide the best way to provide a quality education for all of our students.”

In addition, religious school advocates and Religious Right forces will rally to the cause.

John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council (and Religious Right leader James Dobson’s top agent in the state), told OneNewsNow he welcomes the constitutional change.

“If this measure passes, it would become a permanent part of Florida’s constitution,” said Stemberger, “and it would enable the legislature to pass voucher legislation without being struck down by the courts.”

Mike McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, urged the Commission to delete the church-state separation language in the state constitution, saying it “does not reflect the pluralistic values of Floridians, and is instead reflective of the discriminatory and prejudicial fears of years gone by.”

McCarron and other opponents of church-state separation say the language in the Florida constitution is anti-Catholic and was put there to block public funding of Catholic schools.

Such provisions barring aid to religion appear in as many as three-fourths of the state constitutions; they are often referred to as “Blaine amendments.” In some states, the provisions were added after Sen. James G. Blaine attempted unsuccessfully to add a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the 1870s.

Scholars say part of the motivation for state no-aid provisions was sometimes anti-Catholic, but they note that many states had the restrictions in place long before the Blaine controversy. In addition, they say, forbidding taxpayer support of religion is a fundamental principle of American life, dating back to the enactment of the First Amendment.

The Florida no-aid provision was adopted by a constitutional convention in 1885. No records of the convention exist to give the intent of the framers, so there is no evidence that anti-Catholicism was involved. The language may simply be an extension of the 1868 constitution’s requirement that money from the state School Fund be used exclusively for “the support and maintenance of common [public] schools.”

Church-state separationists say state provisions like Florida’s are critically important now that the Supreme Court is taking a less rigorous approach to religion funding. On the other hand, advocates of taxpayer aid to religious schools and other “faith-based” ministries desperately want to see the provisions removed. In a recent speech, President George W. Bush (Jeb’s brother) urged states to delete the provisions from their constitutions. (See “A New Low At The White House Summit,” page 11.)

If Florida adopts the Bush brothers’ approach, major political campaigns to do the same in other states are certain.

If the state provisions are removed, critics expect an avalanche of funding proposals that will benefit religious schools and other ministries, and state regulation is likely to be weak or non-existent.

That’s been the case in Florida. In 2003, Sami Al-Arian, a founder of Tampa’s Islamic Academy of Florida, was indicted on charges that he was the North American leader of the Palestinian Jihad, a terrorist group. Yet, according to the Palm Beach Post, more than 50 percent of the school’s revenue came from a state-subsidized scholarship-funding organization. (Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and has served nearly five years in prison.)

In 2004, the newspaper reported that 55 percent of Bush’s “Opportunity Scholarships” were going to private schools with no accreditation.

David Ray, director of the Association of Christian Schools, told the Post, “You have some non-educators out there starting schools because they see a pot of gold.”

Still, Bush bitterly fought demands for accountability. His spokesperson said only parents with vouchers should be involved in the decision about which schools to select.

The Bush constitutional revisions are so sweeping that a wide variety of religious ministries will be eligible for state aid, not just religious schools.

Miami Herald columnist Hiaasen said adoption of the amendments would send a message, “Translation: Rush out and start your own church as soon as possible, because deals are waiting in Tallahassee.”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told The Washington Times that supporters of religious liberty and public education will wage a “massive education campaign” to alert Florida voters to the devastating impact of the initiatives.

“It’s going to be a formidable battle,” he said.