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August 19, 2004

Spurning School Choice

By and

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 elsewhere?

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 religion.

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.

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