AU continues to challenge the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

Rev. Harry Parrott’s remarks to the NE Florida Legislative Delegation
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  My name is Rev Harry Parrott, and I come to you as President of the Clay County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and also as a plaintiff in the on-going  lawsuit which is challenging the Florida Tax Credit Program as being unconstitutional.
I’m sure you are aware that in 2006 an earlier voucher program  Florida called the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.  I am very hopeful that the Florida Tax Credit Program will also be struck down: I believe it contains the same flaws of that previous program, and flies in the face of the stated desire of the citizens of Florida.
I’d like to share with you briefly why I am passionate about this matter, and urge you as legislators to turn back from the misguided attempt to create and fund a parallel system of private and religious schools with taxpayer money.  
In the Florida Constitution the citizens of this state have strongly stated two desires about education. The first desire is that public education should be a top priority : Article 9, section 1a, states that it is the state’s “paramount duty” to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools”.
Clearly, it is a direct conflict with this Constitutional mandate to do what the Florida legislature has done, i.e.— taking taxpayer money away from the public schools to fund a parallel system of private and religious schools.   It was because of this direct conflict with the Florida Constitution that the previous (OSP) program was struck down.  In that case, you will recall, vouchers were paid for directly from the state treasury.
Since that time, the Florida legislature has searched for some way to circumvent that ruling, and developed the Florida Tax Credit Program as their answer.  This program allows corporations to give their tax money to intermediate distribution agencies called “Scholarship Funding Organizations”. The rationale is that private schools will now access voucher money from these agencies  before it ever gets to the state treasury.  The deception here is obvious, but does nothing to change the fact that tax money that would otherwise go to public education is being shifted away for the funding of private and religious schools.
This brings me to the second desire clearly stated by Florida citizens, namely, that taxpayer money should not be used to fund religion.  Article 1 of the Florida Constitution has mandated (for over 125 years) that “no revenue of the state…shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution”.  
Clearly, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is in direct contradiction to this mandate: it takes monies that would otherwise go to public schools and gives that money to religious schools to use as they please.  Consider this statistic:  in the recent 2013-14 school year, there were 1,414 private schools participating in the Tax Credit voucher program, and 71% were religious schools.  And here is the data regarding students themselves:  82% of all students receiving vouchers attended religious schools. These religious schools are free to use these taxpayer funds for any purpose —-teaching whatever religious views they wish, evangelizing and proselytizing, holding worship services and even mandatory classes that teach specific religious beliefs.  And these schools are free to discriminate in admitting students and hiring staff.  Clearly, all this stands directly contrary to the Florida Constitution.
I very much regret the necessity of this lawsuit; but the Florida legislature seems determined to evade the Florida Constitution and support a parallel system of private/religious education funded by the taxpayers.  This voucher system now involves over 60,000 students, currently costs taxpayers $286.25 million, and will increase to $357.8 million for 2014-15. Costs will grow in the future.  It is no longer a small program for low-income students, but an ever-expanding system intentionally gathering a growing constituency.  It is badly misguided, and I trust that the Courts will rule it unconstitutional.
But even before the court rules, may I urge you as legislators to seriously consider the following requests:  1) Please support legislation to repeal the Tax Credit Scholarship Program;  2)  At minimum, please require that vouchers not be used in religious schools;  3)  Please impose the same accountability required of public schools (FCAT, certified teachers, etc) so that there can be a meaningful assessment as to how the students are doing at these unregulated schools. 
Thank you.
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