Speaking to a crowd of 4,000 parents, students, and educators gathered at the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee on February 15, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) announced plans to save the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, struck down by the Florida Supreme Court on January 5, and protect the state’s other two voucher programs from a similar fate. It was the largest school choice rally in U.S. history.
Bush is asking the legislature for a temporary fix for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives any student assigned to a public school that has failed two years out of the past four the option of transferring to another public school or using a scholarship to attend a private school.
Ninety-eight percent of Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship students are minorities, and 100 percent are low-income, making them eligible also for one of the state’s other vouchers–the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is open to any student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Bush asked the legislature to allow Opportunity Scholarship students to transfer to the Corporate Tax Credit program, to prevent them from being forced back into their assigned public school in August before the rest of his plan can take effect.
Bush’s second strategy is a joint resolution, which must be approved by three-fifths of the state legislature, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would protect the scholarship programs. The language of the amendment had not been finalized at press time.
Diverse Group Gathered
The rally was sponsored by the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), and the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education (FACE).
“We are proud that such a diverse group of people mobilized for one cause,” said organizer Michael Benjamin, executive director of FACE. “We had representatives from every race, creed, and economic status gathered in Tallahassee, and I think the message was loud and clear: ‘Legislators, protect our scholarships. We will remember your vote on this issue when it is time for your re-election.'”
The Florida Supreme Court on January 5 ruled 5-3 that Opportunity Scholarships violate Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution, which states, “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.”
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Kenneth Bell, whom Bush appointed in 2002, found the Article IX mandate does not preclude alternative educational options or indicate public schools are the only method through which the state can provide for the education of its children, which the majority opinion held. The majority pointed to minutes from meetings of the Constitution Revision Committee, which rejected attempts to include language both prohibiting and allowing the state to issue vouchers, before the 1998 election.
By contrast, Bell agreed with a lower court, which had found, “[N]othing in Article IX, Section 1 clearly prohibits the Legislature from allowing the well-delineated use of public funds for private school education, particularly in circumstances where the Legislature finds such use is necessary.”
Hispanics, Business Represented
Several of the state’s top elected officials, including Senate President Tom Lee (R-Brandon), Speaker of the House Allen Bense (R-Panama City), and Speaker-Designate of the House Marco Rubio (R-Miami), attended the rally and pledged to support the scholarship programs. The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was represented at the event by president Julio Fuentes, a school choice supporter, and five board members who represent some of the largest Hispanic-owned and -run businesses in Florida.
The Hispanic Chamber and other business leaders signed onto the school choice movement in Florida in late 2003, following the release of the final six chapters of the Florida Chamber Foundation-sponsored New Cornerstone Report–the result of a 14-year study that examined factors contributing to the state’s economic health, including health care, education, and housing. The report concluded one single factor had the most impact on Florida’s economic health and the future of commerce in the state: education.
Since then, Fuentes and the chamber have promoted school choice to business leaders who have day-to-day contact with elected officials and contribute to their campaigns.
HCREO, which is based in Washington, DC, plans to hold summits and roundtable discussions in Florida later this year in hopes of bringing more business leaders on board and helping them create a coalition with parents.
“These business leaders have made a stand for school choice. They want to spearhead this issue to address the crisis now,” HCREO Membership Director Maite Arce said. “We hope it will result in influencing legislators to support school choice and increase educational options that are available for parents. That’s our main goal: to give parents a stronger voice and more options.”
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.
For more information …
The January 5 decision of the Florida Supreme Court is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18311.