Florida’s statewide voucher program, called the Opportunity Scholarship Program, could cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year in the future if all eligible students applied—and were able to find seats at private schools willing to participate in the program. Eligibility is determined by enrollment in a public school deemed “failing” for two of the last four years. Seventy-eight schools received an ‘F’ grade in 1999-00 and another 4 schools were graded ‘F’ a year later. These schools educate about 55,000 students. If all 82 schools were to receive a second ‘F’ within the four-year period, and all eligible students applied—and were able to find seats at private schools willing to participate in the program—the cost to taxpayers would exceed $280 million annually by the 2003-04 school year.33 Even if only 25% of these students opted to apply, the cost would be $71 million.
In August 2002, a Leon County Circuit judge ruled that the statewide voucher program violates the state constitution by using tax dollars to aid private and religious schools. Specifically, Judge Kevin Davey explained that the language in Article I, Section 3 of the Florida constitution is unambiguous and clear: “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.”34 The state is appealing the decision.
In addition to its Opportunity Scholarship Program, a separate voucher program, called the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, has cost Florida $5.8 million prior to February 2001 to send 1,000 students to private schools, many of which are religious.35 In 2001 alone, the McKay voucher program cost the state $25 million and by 2001-02, nearly 5,000 students were receiving McKay vouchers to attend private schools.36 Critics of the program are concerned that while the program targets disabled students, participating private schools are exempt from special education requirements that public schools must meet which could result in inadequate care of these students.37 Additionally, as of the 2001-02 school year, the Florida Statutes no longer limit enrollment in the program. As a result, any of state’s estimated 350,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in public schools are now eligible to apply for a voucher under the McKay scholarship program. But the law also states that private schools do not have to accept all students and can accept payments over and above the state’s voucher amount, effectively ensuring that not all students with disabilities will be able to use a voucher at a private school.38