Floridians Seek to Save School Choice from Court Decision

Published February 1, 2006

In response to a 5-2 vote by the Florida Supreme Court overturning the state’s six-year-old Opportunity Scholarship program January 5, parents statewide are joining school choice advocacy organizations in seeking remedies to save their children’s education.

Opportunity Scholarships–which give children attending schools that have received “F” grades from the Florida Department of Education two or more years in a row the opportunity to attend a better-performing public school, or vouchers to attend a private school–have served some 700 children, 95 percent of whom are either black or Hispanic, over the past six years. They also represented the nation’s first statewide voucher program and have been credited with boosting academic performance, particularly among low-income and minority students.

“In my community, where I’ve lived for 35 years, the majority of our schools have gotten an ‘F,'” said Angela Mack, a mother of six in the Overtown area of Miami, who has two children currently using Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools. Her oldest daughter will graduate this year, but her oldest son is a high school junior. When the court’s decision takes effect this fall, he will lose his scholarship to the private school he currently attends in Little Havana and be forced back into a failing public school in his own neighborhood.

“It’s not just the individual school in the neighborhood [that’s failing]–our kids aren’t getting what they need in the community,” Mack explained. “When [they were in the local public school], there were security issues, overcrowding, lots of other stuff going on. I’m going to look at what I need to do to allow my child to finish school [where he is], but I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

‘Uniformly Bad’

When the National Education Association (NEA) filed the lawsuit challenging the scholarship program 18 months ago, it did so on the grounds that most of the students using the vouchers enrolled in private religious schools. However, the court abandoned that premise in its ruling, saying instead the program is unconstitutional because it violates a clause guaranteeing the state’s students a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”

Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, one of the advocacy groups involved in the case, said it made no sense for the court to rule out the choices given voucher students as unconstitutional for not being “uniform” when the public school system is already failing in the “safe” and “high quality” aspects.

“The court turned this constitutional guarantee on its head by taking a provision that guarantees a high-quality education and using it to destroy high-quality education,” Bolick said. “They say if a provision of the constitution says something must be done, it implies that is the only way it can be done. The provision itself says absolutely no such thing. The Wisconsin and Ohio supreme courts that have faced similar challenges have said, ‘of course the state must provide a uniform school system–it’s done that, and now we must do this.’ The question is whether the provision is a floor or a ceiling and this court, alone among all the courts in the U.S., said it’s a ceiling.”

David Salisbury, director of communications and research at the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options in Washington, DC, which filed an amicus brief in the case, agreed.

“Now these kids who have escaped these failing schools will be forced to go back to the ones they wanted to get out of, in the name of uniformity,” Salisbury said. “Uniformity shouldn’t be used to make sure everyone is relegated to a system that’s uniformly bad.”

‘Precious Opportunities’

Because the case involves only Florida policy, there is no federal issue that would allow choice proponents to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bolick said. As a result, Florida parents have only two options: pushing through a legislative measure to fulfill the court’s directives, or approving a ballot measure to amend the state constitution.

“I think we will find a very receptive arena in the legislature,” Bolick said. “The court did provide something of a roadmap for a permissible program, and we will work to carefully craft a legislative solution. It was not unanticipated, and as a result, we’ve been preparing strategy for many months and will be able to hit the ground running very quickly. We’re not going to let these kids lose their precious educational opportunities.”

Mack said she would work to promote either option in her neighborhood when the time comes.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes,” Mack said. “I’m going to need it, because I have two other kids coming up to high school soon, and I’m going to need a way to pay for their education.”

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

For more information …

The full text of the Florida Supreme Court ruling is available on The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=18311.