School Choice Showdown at the Florida Supreme Court
By Lisa Knepper
Thousands of Florida parents rallied outside the Florida Supreme Court to demonstrate their support for school choice.
They came marching up the street toward the Florida Supreme Court, homemade signs in hand, chanting, “What do we want? School choice! When do we want it? Now!” A sea of red shirts with yellow “Warning!” symbols, some 2,000 Florida parents and children gathered to warn that should the Court strike down the nation’s first statewide school choice program, the futures of more than 200,000 students would be in doubt.
That’s how many Florida students participate in scholarship programs that allow the free choice of public or private, religious or non-religious schools. Should the Court rule that school choice violates the state’s Blaine Amendment, programs like McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, Bright Futures Scholarships for college students, and the state’s new pre-K program could be in jeopardy.
Families of all incomes and races who rely on those scholarships rallied on the steps of the Court the morning of June 7, the day the Court finally heard arguments in the teachers’ unions’ legal challenge to Opportunity Scholarships—Florida’s six-year-old school choice program for children in chronically failing public schools.
The march was organized by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, McKay Coalition, Florida African American Education Alliance and the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re here to say that it’s un-American for only those with money to choose their education,” BAEO chairman Howard Fuller told the Tallahassee Democrat. Fuller, D.C. Parents for School Choice Executive Director Virginia Walden Ford, Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Julio Fuentes, and former state Senator John McKay gave rousing speeches to the chanting crowd, making the event feel like a classic civil rights protest of days gone by.
Indeed, as Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Clark Neily told the Tallahassee Democrat, “School choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st Century. There is no other single issue in the country that truly divides the haves and the have-nots [than] who gets to choose their child’s education and who’s stuck with what they’re given.” The Institute has helped lead the defense of Florida’s choice program since its inception.
The front pages of Florida papers carried that message—and pictures of families who rely on school choice—across the state, while national opinion leaders such as the New York Times’ John Tierney, Newsweek’s George F. Will and The Wall Street Journal editorial page carried the message nationwide.
Outside the Court, the terms of the debate were clear: the education establishment is trying to snatch away an educational lifeline from hundreds (and possibly thousands) of poor and minority kids.
Inside the Court, much of the argument focused on the Florida Constitution’s “uniformity” provision—requiring the state to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” The unions and their special interest allies allege that by allowing some kids to opt out of failing public schools, the State is failing in its duty to provide a “uniform” education.
“Florida’s public schools are anything but ‘uniform,’ and only a fraction of Florida schoolchildren attend schools that truly are ‘efficient, safe, secure and high quality,’” said Neily. “Freeing kids from bad schools doesn’t detract from the State’s duty, it fulfills it by ensuring that every child has a chance at a quality education and by promoting genuine public school improvement through competition.”
School choice opponents have raised similar claims in other states. Not once have they succeeded. In Florida, a unanimous state appellate court rejected the unions’ “uniformity” claim in 2000, saying that while the State has a duty to provide public schooling to every child, it can do more—namely, it can provide Opportunity Scholarships to children stuck in bad schools.
“To accept the unions’ claim would be a radical departure from precedent and common sense,” added Neily.
The Court could rule as early as this summer. Regardless of the decision, the Institute for Justice remains committed to preserving school choice for children in Florida and nationwide, no matter what obstacles opponents of true educational opportunity put in our way.Lisa Knepper is IJ’s Director of Communications.