August 19, 2004
By Krista Kafer and Jonathan Butcher
What a great sense of timing some Florida judges have. Even as
families throughout the devastated areas hit by Hurricane Charley
attempt to get their lives back to normal, along comes Florida's
First District Court of Appeals, handing down a decision that will
make that task more difficult -- at least for those families who
benefit from the state's premier school-choice program.
The Court decided that Florida's Opportunity Scholarships Program,
which offers publicly funded scholarships to enable students in
low-performing schools to transfer to higher-performing public or
private schools, violates the state constitution.
This decision comes as discouraging news to the more than 600
students currently enrolled in the program -- and even worse news
to the hundreds more who are eligible for the coming school year.
Ultimately, it could threaten the gains the Florida public-school
system has made as a result of school-choice provisions.
Studies of the Florida program have found that vouchers act as an
incentive to improve. Schools faced with the prospect of losing
students make greater academic progress than similar schools not
affected by vouchers. Suddenly schools are competing to keep
students. Isn't it funny what happens when you tell people that if
they don't meet your needs, you're taking your business
And one more question: Haven't we been through this already? In
2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that
publicly funded vouchers are constitutional. Chief Justice William
Rehnquist concluded that the Cleveland program was one "of true
private choice." In other words, because parents choose the type of
school, the government is not supporting or establishing
The Florida A+ Program is no different. Students in schools that
perform poorly can choose another public school, a private secular
school or a religious school. In the words of Florida Judge Ricky
Polston, who wrote in dissent of the decision, school choice
"benefits children disadvantaged by failing schools rather than the
receiving religious organizations."
The liberty to choose the best school for your child is a basic
freedom enjoyed by middle- and upper-class parents everywhere. The
Opportunity Scholarship program extends that freedom to all Florida
parents who want something better for their kids, and Florida
parents, like parents everywhere, want the best for their children.
One Florida mom was quoted saying her son started crying when told
he may not be able to go to his school in the coming year. "I don't
know what I'm going to do if the scholarship program ends," she
said. Another mom saw the program as an opportunity to "give my
daughter more chances than I had in life."
The timing couldn't be worse for Florida parents. Thousands of
residents are still cleaning up after the worst storm to hit the
state since Hurricane Andrew, and many districts are set to start
class soon. Now, not only will many parents have to put their lives
back together after losing their homes and simultaneously get their
children prepared for the first day of school, they face the
possibility that the court will force their children back into a
low-performing school against their will.
What a way to start the school year.
Krista Kafer is a senior education policy analyst at The
Heritage Foundation, where Jonathan Butcher is a researcher who
specializes in education issues.
The liberty to choose the best school for your child is a basic freedom enjoyed by middle- and upper-class parents everywhere.
Senior Education Policy Analyst
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