TALLAHASSEE–As Florida Supreme Court justices heard arguments on June 7 in a court case challenging the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, more than 2,000 parents, teachers, and school administrators rallied outside the building to show their support for school choice.
The Opportunity Scholarship program, enacted in 1999 and now under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), grants scholarships to students in Florida public schools that earn an “F” rating in two of four years, enabling those students to attend the schools of their choice. The failing schools tend to be concentrated in poor, urban areas; 97 percent of Opportunity Scholarship recipients are minorities.
Numerous Programs Threatened
In addition to threatening the educational opportunities of the 700 students currently enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship program, the case also could affect more than 200,000 students in similar programs statewide–including those on Bright Futures college scholarships, those on McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities, and those hoping to enroll in the state’s new Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program.
This past March, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Florida legislators citing a lower court’s ruling against Opportunity Scholarships, warning that the new pre-kindergarten program, which includes religious and secular options, “will inevitably [lead to] more litigation.”
Elsewhere in the media and court filings, school choice opponents have signaled their belief that pre-kindergarten, McKay scholarships, and possibly other programs may be challenged if the court rules against Opportunity Scholarships.
Court Faces “Clear Choice”
“The Florida Supreme Court faces a clear choice: Will Florida continue to lead the nation in educational opportunity, or will teachers’ unions and other special-interest groups succeed in [thwarting] proven education reform?” said Clark Neily, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC-based group representing the Opportunity Scholarships in the case.
“There is simply no reason to remove hundreds of kids from the only good schools they have ever known,” said Neily, “and we will take the fight to save their scholarships to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to.”
Under Opportunity Scholarships and similar programs, parents and students are awarded scholarships that can be used at the school of their choice, with no consideration as to whether the school is religiously affiliated or not. The case hinges on the Florida Constitution’s Blaine Amendment–an amendment preventing the public funding of parochial schools.
“These scholarships aid students, not schools,” explained John Kirtley, vice chairman of the Alliance for School Choice in Tampa. “Opportunity Scholarships work identically to scholarship programs like Bright Futures college scholarships– students and parents use publicly funded scholarships to choose from religious and non-religious providers. So why has the teachers’ union not sued to remove Bright Futures? Perhaps it is because their own economic interest is not threatened?”
The Florida Education Association did not return calls for comment.
Floridians Support Choice
Support for K-12 school choice in Florida–where the average annual graduation rate at public high schools hovers near 50 percent–has grown steadily since 1998. Under Gov. Jeb Bush (R), several choice programs have sprung up to serve low-income, disabled, and high-achieving college-bound students.
Tallahassee has been the site of several school choice rallies in the past, most notably a March 2004 rally of 3,000 participants, the largest school choice rally in the nation’s history. No school choice opponents appeared outside the court building on June 7.
Rally participants traveled from as far away as Miami; most rode on a bus overnight to arrive in Tallahassee on time.
Organized by individual schools, the trip also served as a civics lesson on participation in government. Following lunch on the capitol grounds, students toured the Historic Capitol Building, Museum of Florida History, and the Challenger Learning Center.
Sponsors Were Minority Groups
The rally was sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), and Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The event was emceed by BAEO President Howard Fuller.
Featured speakers included Virginia Walden Ford, president of D.C. Parents for Choice, a leader in the movement to bring school choice to the nation’s capital and one of the first African-American students to attend Little Rock’s Central High following Brown v. Board of Education. Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and HCREO board member Julio Fuentes also spoke, as did John McKay, the former state senator who sponsored the bill creating Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities.
The state supreme court is expected to rule on the case later this year.
Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.