Constitution Revision Commission

Every two decades a commission is charged with reviewing the Florida constitution and suggesting changes to it. I admit that I know very little about the process, so I will rely on you folks to educate me and guide all of us through the process. I do know that the commission has held public hearings and after some deliberations generated a list of proposed changes to the constitution. This Sun-Sentinel article lists the final 103 proposals. There are quite a few items that target education. For instance, here’s a couple of proposals:

4. Deleting language barring state funds from going to “aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.”

59. Allowing the state to use taxpayer dollars to fund private, religious schools.

I wrote about that part of the state constitution in chapter eight of my book Going Ape. When Jeb Bush was governor he made many significant changes to the education system. In 1999 he worked with the state legislature to create the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was a voucher program that allowed students who attended consistently failing public schools to either transfer to a high-performing public school or use state funds to attend a participating private school. The program was quickly challenged because the majority of participating private school were religious.

“Many of the parents bring their kids here because they want a Christian education,” the principal of a voucher-accepting private school told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. “And a Christian education does not include evolution.”

The ACLU and the National Education Association sued to have the Opportunity Scholarship Program stopped. They had several problems with the program, one of them being that public money going to private religious schools violated Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which states “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof 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.”

After several years, the final court decision was that the Opportunity Scholarship Program was in violation of the state constitution. The part of the constitution cited in the ruling, though, was one that requires the state to provide a “uniform, high quality education.” In other words, the private schools could use any curriculum they wanted and didn’t have to adhere to any particular education standards, which doesn’t live up to the constitution’s mandate of “uniform” education. Lower court rulings did say the program violated the “aid to sectarian institution” prohibition but the Florida Supreme Court didn’t offer any opinion on that matter, instead focusing on the “quality education” argument. Thus, that program was finally killed.

But there are many other education-related proposals on the commission’s list, such as this:

45. Changing the wording of the “public education” section of the constitution from requiring a system of free public schools that “allows students to obtain a high quality education” to one that allows “for the opportunity for each student to obtain a high quality education.” Also lays out that nothing in this section prevents the Legislature from creating other educational opportunities in addition to free public schools.

Florida does currently have other voucher programs, but not ones that were so wide open as the Opportunity Scholarship Program was. It’s obvious, though, that there is a determined effort to return to the good ol’ days of vouchers for everyone. Will the Constitution Revision Commission’s proposals be a step in that direction?

There are other education-related items on the commission’s list:

10. Requiring civic literacy to be taught in schools.
25. Creating a 17-member board of directors for the state college system, which will oversee all community colleges and state colleges, but not universities.
32. Taking away any compensation except travel and per diem expenses from members of the state board of education, school boards, university boards of trustees and the university system’s board of governors.
33. Ending election of school superintendents and making all of them appointed by county school boards.
43. Preventing people from running for school board if they have been on the board for the previous eight consecutive years.
44. Requiring the vote of nine members of a university board of trustees and 12 members of the university system’s board of governors to increase fees or tuition at a university.
71. Adding to the section on school boards in the constitution that nothing within the section limits the Florida Legislature’s ability to create alternatives to school boards for the establishment of charter schools.
82. Preventing school boards from setting the opening day of school more than a week before Labor Day.
83. Creating a State College System under the Florida Board of Education.
89. Stating that “it is the intent of the people to provide high quality and affordable postsecondary education opportunities.”
90. Changing the maximum class size for a public school of 22 to an average class size of 22 within the school. Additionally, any funds leftover from those appropriated to maintain class size would go toward increasing teacher pay to the national average.
93. Allowing a school board, by a vote of the board or county voters, to turn a school district into a charter school district that is exempt from the same rules and regulations as a charter school.

If you want to track any of the proposals, go to the Constitution Revision Commission website at www.flcrc.gov. And I encourage anyone who knows more about this revision process than I to please volunteer to be our guide. It will be sincerely appreciated.

Update 1:

Some Florida Citizens for Science members and friends traveled to Tallahassee Nov 29 to testify against the proposed change to our state constitution that would “remove the prohibition against using public revenues in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or any sectarian institution.” Jiri Hulcr and Joseph Richardson sent this report of their experience, reprinted with permission:

Joseph Richardson and I have just come back from a meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission in Tallahassee. The main topic of today’s agenda was whether to place on a public voting ballot the proposal to delete the No Aid clause of the Florida Constitution that bans the State from supporting religious organizations with tax-revenue money.

It was one of the most troubling experiences in my recent memory. I believe that we have witnessed the right-wing political machine at work. It was obvious that the decisions of the individual committee members have been made long before the meeting. Many of the commissioners are politically appointed by governor Scott, others are drawn from other branches of the current government, and as a result this critically important body is much more a reflection of the current conservative representatives than of the state’s population. There were only four members of the public that spoke: three against the proposal, one (a representative of a catholic bishop conference) in support. The proposal passed 7 to 1 [the website says the vote was 5-1], quickly, with little discussion among the committee members. The Florida voters will soon be asked to decide whether to get rid of one of the few remaining pieces in the state legislature that prevent religious organizations pushing religious agenda, particularly education, using your taxes.

The most troubling aspect was the behavior of some of the committee members. There was not even a pretext of unbiased and prudent deliberation. Commissioner Stemberger in particular was wallowing in excitement as he proceeded to lecture about the benefits of connecting, not separating, church and state. […] Here are a few transcribed gems: “By getting rid of [the No Aid clause] we are getting more human flourishing, better education… Faith is a public good. Faith provides amazing richness and services. […] It is smart for the government to decentralize its services… The purpose of the First Amendment was NOT to protect non-religious people from religion…. Our job [as the Committee] is not to be successful, it is to be faithful.”

Is this legal? Is this the appropriate process? Can the committee’s explicit, blatant bias be challenged on this ground?

If you’re interested in watching the comments, the video is available online. Jiri starts at about 1:55:00 and Joseph immediately follows him.

Here’s a news article about the vote: Panel wants end of Florida constitution ban on state cash for religion

The Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has the power to place proposed constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot. Martinez’s proposal to eliminate the no-aid provision is one of dozens of proposals being considered by the commission.

Adkins warned commission members that adding a “controversial” provision like the no-aid proposal could jeopardize the commission’s entire slate of measures. She noted a similar no-aid constitutional amendment failed in 2012 with only 44.5 percent support from voters.

[…]

Martinez’s proposal next heads to the commission’s Education Committee. If it moves forward to the full 37-member commission, it will need at least 22 votes to go before voters in November 2018.

Florida Citizens for Science member and Gainesville resident Jiri Hulcr had an opinion piece published in the Gainesville Sun about her experience speaking in front of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. She was there to oppose the proposal to allow public money to fund religious organizations (such as voucher schools that teach creationism instead of evolution). Don’t use taxpayer money to fund religious organizations.

The meeting was eye-opening. What I witnessed was not prudent and unbiased deliberation, but a show scripted for public consumption. Several commissioners did not even pretend to represent the people, and instead were justifying a clear agenda. Commissioner John Stemberger, for example, was beaming with excitement as he proceeded to lecture about the benefits of connecting, not separating, church and state.

“Faith is a public good … Our job [as the commission] is not to be successful, it is to be faithful,” Stemberger said.