Tropical Storm Fay washed away more than the first day of school on Monday. Fay also forced Broward County School employees to postpone an organized protest. The Broward Teacher’s Union had asked all district employees to wear black on Monday in protest of three constitutional amendments the school district says could cause an already budget-strapped school system to cut more funds.
The wording of the three amendments, 5, 7 and 9, has been questioned, and amendment 5 has been stricken from the ballot because of confusing language. Amendment 5 focused on what is being called a “tax swap” plan.
If it had passed, the amendment would have eliminated nearly $8 billion in state-required school property taxes would have replaced the lost revenue with a one-cent sales tax increase and the elimination of some tax exemptions. Opponents had argued that the alternative funding sources were not stable and would not cover the entirety of the money lost by eliminating required school property taxes.
Amendments 7 and 9 both aim to provide taxpayers’ money for school vouchers to religious schools. Amendment 7 would remove language from the constitution that prohibits the use of taxpayer money for religious purposes and institutions. By removing the current language, it would make it possible for the state to use public money to pay for private school tuitions.
Amendment 9 also would create a vouchers type program for public money to fund private school tuition. The amendment also would require school districts to allocate a minimum of 65 percent of their total state funding directly to classroom instruction.
“What it comes down to is that people see that their taxes will be less but don’t see what they lose. All of these amendments are a threat to the public schooling system. The push is to make education as small a part of our government budget as possible,” said a Broward County assistant principal who requested anonymity because of the district’s policy regarding staff speaking to media.
The plan, backed by Gov. Charlie Crist, was put on the ballot by the Taxation and Budget Reform Committee. Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper removed Amendment 5 from the ballot because he said it was not made clear to voters that the alternative sources are only guaranteed to match previous school funding for one year in 2010. After 2010 there is no mandate to fund schools at the previous levels.
Mark Herron, attorney for the Taxation and Budget Reform committee said the ballot summary didn’t have to include all of the many scenarios that could occur if the amendment had passed.
Regarding amendments 7 and 9, a statement on the Broward school district’s website says vouchers would signal the beginning of the end of public education: “Public education is already funded in Florida at 50th in the nation – dead last! State funding cuts for public education over the past two years have caused many school districts to lay off employees – including teachers – and cut educational programs.”
Supporters of the amendments say the vote is for school choice. The voucher issue was originally implemented in 1999 under former Gov. Jeb Bush, but was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. The court essentially said the state Constitution bars Florida from using taxpayer money to finance a private alternative to the public system.
The debate over amendment 9 concerns the definition of classroom instruction. Most, if not all of Florida’s school districts already allocate more than 65 percent to classroom instruction. Fears loom that the law could be interpreted in such a way that would not take into account classroom support services like guidance counselors, security personnel and social workers.
With amendment 5 now off the ballot, opponents are now focusing on defeating amendments 7 and 9.
“I think most parents would send their students to a private school, to get a private school education, if they could afford it. I would like the ability to choose where my child goes and to choose from established quality schools, religious or otherwise,” said Anelia Taylor, parent of a second grader at Maplewood Elementary School in Coral Springs.