Florida Court Does Disservice to Kids

While they attended class last week, 30,000 Florida students may have had their educational futures dashed by a ruling from the state’s Supreme Court.

In a 5-2 decision, the court rejected the judgment of elected policymakers and ruled that the state’s A+ Opportunity Scholarship program is unconstitutional because it “diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools.” This implies that the state cannot enact any taxpayer-funded program that allows children to be educated outside the public school system.

The court’s ruling could threaten the school choice revolution that has swept Florida under Governor Jeb Bush. Since 1999, Florida has enacted three pioneering school choice programs to help at-risk K-12 students. The Opportunity Scholarship program, enacted in 1999, helps low-income students trapped in failing schools to attend a private school of their choice. Last year, 763 children participated in the program, 94 percent of them from minority families.

In 2001, Florida enacted the McKay scholarship program, which offers school choice to children with physical or learning disabilities. Last year, 15,000 special-needs students participated in this program.

Also in 2001, Florida enacted a corporate scholarship tax credit program that allows businesses to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to charities that fund private school scholarships for low-income families. More than 15,000 children are expected to participate in the program this year, all of them from families eligible for free and subsidized school lunches.

Early evidence suggests that these programs are improving the public education system and are popular with parents. In 2003, Manhattan Institute researcher Jay Greene studied the competitive effects of the Opportunity Scholarship program and found that students at schools threatened with losing students to the voucher program improved more on standardized tests than students at schools that weren’t threatened by competition.

A 2003 survey of families participating in the McKay scholarship program for special-needs children found that 90 percent of the parents of students participating in the program were satisfied with their children’s schooling. Even among families that had chosen to leave the McKay program—returning their children to public schools—90 percent believed that the program should continue to be available.

That option may soon be off the table. In the wake of the state Supreme Court’s striking down the Opportunity Scholarship program, a similar fate could befall the McKay scholarship and corporate tax credit programs. If all three programs were struck down, 30,000 children—all of whom come from low-income families or failing public schools or have special needs—would be sent back into the public school system that was providing them and many other at-risk children with a substandard education.

The statistics show why so many Florida families are taking advantage of these programs. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 44 percent of 8th graders from low-income families in Florida scored below “basic” in reading. In 2002, less than half of Florida’s African-American and Hispanic children graduate from high school, compared to a statewide average of 67 percent of white children.

For each of the 30,000 children participating in Florida’s school choice programs, losing the freedom to attend the best possible school will have a devastating effect. Denying this opportunity to future generations of at-risk children will have consequences that are impossible to quantify.

Until today, Florida has been a beacon of hope in the effort to provide educational opportunities to disadvantaged children. The effect of the court’s decision could result in dimmer prospects for children across the nation.

Policy and legal remedies to the court’s ruling are uncertain. What is clear is that the families of 30,000 children have a serious new cause for concern about their future. As in the past when the door to opportunity has been blocked, they must now stand up for their freedom to choose the path to educational excellence for their children.