TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court struck down a statewide voucher system yesterday that allowed children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense -- a program Governor Jeb Bush considered one of his most significant achievements.
In a 5-to-2 ruling, the high court said the system, the nation's first statewide program, violates the Florida Constitution's requirement of a uniform system of free public education.
About 700 children are attending private or parochial schools through the program. But the ruling will not go into effect until the end of the school year.
Voucher opponents had also argued that the program violated the separation of church and state in giving tax dollars to parochial schools, and a lower court agreed. But the state Supreme Court did not address that issue.
''I think it is a sad day for accountability in our state," Bush said, adding that the program ''put pressure on school districts to focus on the underperforming schools."
The voucher setup was part of the governor's education initiative 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 program, such as finding private money or changing state law.
''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," Bush said.
Under the 1999 law, students at public schools that receive a failing grade from the state twice in 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 the nation, said Ron Meyer, lead lawyer 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 such a decision, Bush has been working on a backup plan to keep voucher students in private schools by providing tax credits to corporations that give scholarships.
Clark Neily, a lawyer who argued the case for voucher advocates, called the decision ''a setback for those parents and children trapped in failing schools."
Opponents included the state teachers union, Florida PTA, NAACP, and League of Women Voters.