Heartland Comment on Florida Supreme Court Decision on School Choice

Published January 5, 2006

By declaring Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional, the State Supreme Court of Florida has robbed hundreds, maybe thousands, of disadvantaged children of a better future.

(Chicago, IL — January 5, 2006) Earlier today, the Supreme Court of Florida found the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional–a ruling that will require hundreds of at-risk students currently attending non-public schools with taxpayer-supported scholarships to return to failing public schools.

The court’s decision also handcuffs the state legislature by declaring the existing system of public schools the only avenue by which the state can fulfill its obligation to provide high-quality, free education. As a result, thousands of disabled children enrolled in the state’s McKay Voucher Program also will be forced back to the public system.

The Florida Supreme Court reached its decision despite the absence of language in the state’s constitution expressly forbidding the use of taxpayer funds for the purpose of ensuring access to quality education. As Justice Kenneth B. Bell noted in the dissenting opinion, “Ten other states have constitutional provisions that expressly prohibit the allocation of public education funds to private schools … However, the people of Florida have not included such a proscription in article IX, section 1 of the Florida Constitution.”

Experts with The Heartland Institute strongly disagreed with the court’s decision:

Karla Dial, managing editor of School Reform News:

“In striking down the Opportunity Scholarship Program today, the Florida Supreme Court proved once again how much of a stranglehold the teachers’ unions and special-interest groups have on education and free enterprise.

“For six years, Florida has given every child in the state what all parents–not just those in certain cities or socioeconomic groups–want for their children: the right to transfer from a school that’s not meeting their educational needs to one that will challenge and stimulate them and actually prepare them to enter the workforce when they become adults.

“But teachers’ unions, which are threatened by the prospect of real reforms and actual achievement, had to sue to stop it from spreading from Florida to the rest of the country. In ruling that students can transfer only from one public school to another public school, which has nearly identical curricula and teacher credentialing, the court has sentenced all Florida’s children to a mediocre education, which will have ripple effects throughout the rest of their lives.

“American companies are already outsourcing skilled jobs overseas because our domestic workforce no longer has the education required to get the job done; a growing percentage of college students are forced to take remedial classes because their high schools did not prepare them for the rigors of real academia. With this ruling, the Florida Supreme Court has signaled it’s just fine with things as they are, and there’s no real need to improve.

“A choice between one failing government-run school and another is no choice at all.”

George Clowes, senior fellow for education policy, The Heartland Institute:

“It is difficult not to view this decision as based on political considerations rather than constitutional issues, since the new ruling does not involve any consideration of Florida’s Blaine Amendment, which the Appellate Court used as its flimsy basis to strike down the Opportunity Scholarship Program in November 2004.

“However, the Florida Supreme Court has taken a totally different approach from the Appeals Court–equally flimsy, but now based on the state’s “uniformity” clause–to strike down this highly effective voucher program.

“This ruling makes Florida’s public schools into an unassailable monopoly, effectively the sole provider of public education in the state. Even if the state tells parents their local public school is failing, those parents have few effective means of putting pressure on that school to improve. With this disappointing ruling, parents have lost their most effective public school improvement tool: the ability to take their child, along with sufficient education dollars, to a private school.”

Phylicia Lyons, executive director, the Illinois School Choice Initiative, a project of The Heartland Institute:

“Three years prior to the passing of Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, only 15 percent of 4th graders and 17 percent of 8th graders read at or above proficiency, according the Nation’s Report Card. During this same time period, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute reports, only 61 percent of high school students graduated, and only 48 percent of Hispanic and 56 percent of African American students.

“Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida state legislators saw the problem and sought to fix it by giving children in failing schools a ticket out. To truly reform public schools, the Florida legislature recognized they needed to stimulate competition and introduce more educational choices for children and families in Florida.

“The Florida Opportunity Scholarships provided more than 700 students a chance to attend private schools they could not otherwise afford. It is hard to ignore that 61 percent of those children are African American and 34 percent are Hispanic. Without opportunity scholarships, these disadvantaged Black and Hispanic children don’t have a fighting chance for success.”

Editors and reporters: The full text of the Supreme Court of Florida’s decision in John Ellis “Jeb” Bush etc. et al. v. Ruth D. Holmes et al. (No. SC04-2323), Charles J. Crist Jr. etc. v. Ruth D. Holmes et al. (No. SC04-2324), and Brenda McShane etc. et al. v. Ruth D. Holmes et al. (No. SC04-2325) is available on The Heartland Institute Web site at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=18311

The experts quoted above are available for further comment on the Florida court’s decision.

Ms. Karla Dial, Managing Editor, School Reform News, [email protected]

Mr. George Clowes (clues), Senior Fellow, The Heartland Institute, [email protected]

Ms. Phylicia Lyons, Executive Director, the Illinois School Choice Initiative, 312/377-4000, [email protected].

The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, its goal is to help build social movements in support of ideas that empower people. Among other publications, Heartland publishes School Reform News, a monthly newspaper addressing education policy issues. Heartland is supported by approximately 1,500 donors and members. For more information, call Ralph Conner, Public Affairs Director, 312/377-4000, or email him at [email protected].