The disappointing “he-said” coverage of Florida’s Amendment 8

Ron Matus

There are times when it’s appropriate for a journalist to boil down a story into a he-said, she-said. And there are times when it’s just lackluster reporting.

As Jon East has noted in this blog post and this op-ed, Florida’s Amendment 8 – the “religious freedom amendment” – is not about private school vouchers. It’s clear if you look at the legal history for private education options in Florida. It’s clear if you look to see who is and isn’t bankrolling the campaign.

And yet, one news story after another has allowed the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association and other school choice critics to posit that it is about vouchers – and to let those assertions go unchallenged. Often it’s in terms so deep into an alternate reality, they beg for a little scrutiny. According to the Gainesville Sun, for example, an Alachua County School Board member described Amendment 8 as “the very death of public schools.”

With six weeks left before the vote, statements like these are surfacing in major newspapers nearly every day. Here are a few examples, along with how the story captures the legislative intent of the amendment, the constitutional underpinnings of school vouchers, the lack of a campaign or financial support by school voucher advocates, the factual history of private options in a state that now provides them to more than 200,000 students, or just some form of a statement from those with an opposing view:

From the South Florida Sun Sentinel (Aug. 21):

“Amendment 8 would remove the long-standing restriction in the Florida Constitution that prohibits the expenditure of public funds to support religious programs,” the resolution (from the Broward County School Board) reads. “Passage of Amendment 8 could result in state funds being awarded to non-public schools, instead of allocated to support public and charter schools.”

The resolution stops short of saying whether those would be good or bad outcomes, but it was obvious where board members stood.

“We have a limited amount of resources, and you would continue to strain the resources for public and charter schools,” board member Robin Bartleman said.

Response from other side: None

Supporting evidence: None

***

From the Daytona Beach News Journal (Sept. 15):

The title and wording of the amendment were the subject of a lawsuit in which Ormond Beach school principal Susan Persis and Palm Coast rabbi Merrill Shapiro were plaintiffs.

They and other representatives of school-related organizations and clergy tried to get the amendment thrown off the ballot, but a judge allowed it to go before voters after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi rewrote the proposal.

Persis said she fears passage of Amendment 8 would divert money from public schools to religious ones. “This would further reduce funding for public education,” said Persis, who’s principal of Pine Trail Elementary. “Any further reduction will be devastating to our schools.”

Shapiro said individual Floridians, not government officials, need to decide which churches or religious organizations they will support financially.

Much of the debate over Amendment 8 has centered on its impact on school vouchers, one form of which the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2006. Two other voucher programs — one for disabled students and another supported through corporate tax credits — remain on the books.

“This is a religious funding amendment; it’s a misnomer to call it a ‘religious freedom’ amendment,” said Volusia County School Board member Candace Lankford. It wouldn’t affect provisions of the U.S. and state constitutions barring the government from establishing an official religion or interfering with the free exercise of religion, she said.

“This does nothing but open the door for vouchers for everyone,” Lankford said.

Response from other side: Amendment 8 supporters say that isn’t so. “This doesn’t do anything for school vouchers,” said Jim Frankowiak, campaign manager for the Tallahassee-based Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination that supports Amendment 8.

The Supreme Court relied on another section of the state constitution to invalidate the “opportunity scholarship” vouchers, he said.

Response to the response: But a Florida School Boards Association issues brief notes the “no-aid” provision that would be changed by Amendment 8 was cited in circuit and appellate court rulings leading up to the Supreme Court decision.

Removing it from the constitution through Amendment 8 would effectively overturn those lower court rulings and open the way for renewal and expansion of the voucher program, according to the association.

Response to the response to the response: None.

Supporting evidence: None.

***

From the Pensacola News-Journal (Sept. 17):

Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said public schools have taken a big cut in funding in recent years, and if this amendment passes, he worries that public school districts will get less money.

“What concerns me is there’s a finite amount of money,” he said. “If you give it to religious organizations, (public schools) are going to come up with less. If this passes, I don’t think there’s going to be new revenue. Our responsibilities in the public arena are much different than in parochial schools.”

Some public school teachers, already strapped for cash, also oppose the amendment. They say it could lead to the creation of a voucher program that would send students to private schools with taxpayer money.

“I’m a pro-public school person,” said Elijah Bell, a teacher at Avalon Middle School and resident of Jay. “I think the pendulum has swung toward charter schools and private schools. When you take money that comes out of the coffers from mine and your tax money, that’s going to stir the pot.”

Bell said if the amendment passes, it would be harmful to public school students.

“It would be an avenue to take needed funds away from public schools and the kids that need it and give it to someone else,” Bell said. “I don’t think my tax money should be available to private schools. All the public school teachers I’ve talked to are very much opposed to it.”

Response: The story included one quote from an official with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, but it had nothing to do with the amendment and vouchers.

Supporting evidence: None.

***

These issues are complicated. It does take a little time to become familiar with the legal history of vouchers and tax credit scholarships in Florida. But readers need to know what’s really at issue so there can be a true debate about an important topic. Journalists should be sorting out and clarifying. So far, they seem mainly to be parroting critics.

(Image from tinasvirtualoffice.com)

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1 comment

69,000 pieces of just flat wrong | Say Yes on 8 October 1, 2012 - 2:00 pm

[…] The Orange County school district tells redefinED the fliers don’t cross the line into advocacy because they’re for informational purposes and state, at the top, “IT’S YOUR DECISION.” But the fliers are filled with the same misinformation being spread far and wide by the Florida Education Association, Florida School Boards Association and Fund Education Now – and left unchallenged by Florida journalists. […]

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