State Supreme Court Decision Threatens Florida School
January 5, 2006
While they attended class this morning, 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
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.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage