The Florida Supreme Court struck down a statewide voucher system Thursday that allowed children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense — a program Gov. Jeb Bush considered one of his proudest achievements.
It was the nation's first statewide voucher program.
In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the program undermines the public schools and violates the Florida Constitution's requirement of a uniform system of free public education.
Voucher opponents had also argued that the program violated the separation of church and state in giving tax dollars to parochial schools — an argument a lower court agreed with. But the state Supreme Court did not address that issue.
About 700 children are attending private or parochial schools through the program. But the ruling will not become effective until the end of the school year.
"I think it is a sad day for accountability in our state," Bush said. He said the voucher program had a positive effect because it "put pressure on school districts to focus on the underperforming schools."
The voucher setup was a part of an education program on the governor's part that also includes testing at virtually every level and a school grading system that offers performance-based rewards and punishments.
Bush said he will look for ways to continue the voucher programs, such as finding private money, changing state law or amending the Florida Constitution.
"I don't think any option should be taken off the table," the governor said. "School choice is as American as apple pie in my opinion. ... The world is made richer and fuller and more vibrant when you have choices."
Under the 1999 law, students at public schools that earn a failing grade from the state in two out of four years were eligible for vouchers to attend private schools.
Chief Justice Barbara Pariente said the program "diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools," which are the sole means set out in the state constitution for educating Florida children.
The ruling was a victory for public schools across the state and nation, said Ron Meyer, lead attorney for a coalition that challenged the voucher program.
"Students using vouchers will now be welcomed back into Florida public schools," Meyer said in a statement. "It decides with finality that the voucher program is unconstitutional."
Anticipating the possibility of an adverse ruling, the governor has been working on a backup plan to keep voucher students in private schools by providing tax credits to corporations that give students scholarships.
Clark Neily, an attorney who argued the case for voucher advocates, called the decision "a setback for those parents and children trapped in failing schools."
The U.S. Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support the state. Voucher opponents included the state teachers union, the Florida PTA, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
The ruling did not directly affect nearly 30,000 students in two other voucher programs for disabled and poor children, but it could be cited as a precedent.