Florida Voucher Ruling Puts Programs at Risk

Published February 1, 2006

The Florida Supreme Court’s January 5 decision to overturn the statewide A+ Opportunity Scholarship voucher program for students in low-performing schools leaves other programs–particularly in the Sunshine State, but possibly elsewhere as well–at risk of further court action.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Florida has led the nation in breadth and diversity of educational choices. In addition to the Opportunity Scholarships, the state has since 2000 offered McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, a corporate income tax-credit scholarship program since 2002, and a voluntary pre-kindergarten program since 2005. All are designed to give parents the means to meet their children’s educational needs, regardless of socioeconomic status. According to the Web site of U.S. Charter Schools (http://www.uscharterschools.org), the state was also serving more than 82,000 students in its 338 charter schools as of December 2005.

But because the court ruled the Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional under a uniformity clause requiring the state provide a “uniform, high quality system of free public schools,” several of those options–particularly the McKay program and charter schools–could soon be under siege, said Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based advocacy organization.

Endangered Programs

“The McKay program operates in almost-identical fashion to the Opportunity Scholarship program, and it’s very hard to distinguish the two,” Bolick said. “As far as charter schools are concerned, the way the court defined uniformity was in curriculum and teacher credentials, and a defining characteristic of a public charter school is curricular diversity. So if the court means what it says, charter schools could be in jeopardy. You can only imagine how unions are salivating over this decision.”

Miguel Gonzalez, a spokesman for the National Education Association, one of the groups that sued Florida over the Opportunity Scholarships, said the organization was considering its next step.

“At this point, we have not decided which option to pursue,” Gonzalez said. “They’re not off the table. We’re going to evaluate our options and proceed accordingly.”

Bolick said he doubted the ruling would affect the corporate income tax-credit scholarships and voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Limited Scope

The ruling also could have ripple effects outside of Florida. About 40 states authorize charter schools, and 13 of them–Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming–have constitutional uniformity clauses similar to Florida’s. Wisconsin also has a looser clause, requiring schools to be “as nearly uniform as possible.” Bolick doubted other courts would follow Florida’s lead in using those clauses against school choice, however.

“The [Florida] Court held that the provision means that public schools are the exclusive means by which the state may provide educational opportunities,” Bolick pointed out in a January 7 statement.

“Given that the intended beneficiaries of the constitutional provisions regarding education are children,” Bolick noted, “we can expect reasonable courts to interpret the provisions to uphold programs that benefit children. In doing exactly the opposite, we can be confident that the Florida Supreme Court will find itself as lonely as it is misguided.”

Ohio Challenge

Ohio may be an exception, however, as it is the only state besides Florida to offer a statewide voucher program to students in failing schools. A ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court in a challenge against charter schools was still pending at press time.

The case, filed by the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), was argued before the court in November 2005. Ohio Parents for School Choice, an advocacy organization, did not return calls seeking comment before press time, but OFT spokeswoman Lisa Zellner said the Florida ruling was “a victory for taxpayers everywhere.”

“It has similarities to the Supreme Court case here, because there is an equity question,” Zellner explained. “In Ohio, it deals specifically with charters being a separate education system, which we believe is not allowed under our constitution. Public tax dollars should be used for public education, not to pay for children to go to private schools that charge tuition. Parents and taxpayers would get their money’s worth in Ohio if the state adequately funded public education, but what happens is that tax dollars are taken away from public schools and used on these charters, which are often for-profit businesses.

“By taking the money away from public school districts, those students who remain have a lesser opportunity because the districts have to lay off staff, raise class sizes, strip programs,” Zellner continued. “The intent here is not to improve education, and the results show that, because here, seven out of 10 charter schools are rated as failing by the state’s own assessment.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

For state-by-state information on charter schools, visit http://www.uscharterschools.org.