Florida Families Join Education, Minority and Social Service Groups To File “Friend of the Court” Briefs Urging the Florida Supreme Court to Save School Choice

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · January 24, 2005

Washington, D.C.—Today Florida families who rely on publicly funded scholarships for quality education will join a diverse group of 18 education, minority advocacy, religious and social service organizations, including the Salvation Army, to file amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) briefs with the Florida Supreme Court urging the justices to uphold Florida’s Opportunity Scholarships program—and thereby preserve critical educational and social service programs that might be jeopardized by a ruling against school choice. Opportunity Scholarships enable parents in failing public schools to choose better-performing public or private schools for their children, including religious schools.

At issue in the case is the proper interpretation of Florida’s Blaine Amendment, an unfortunate remnant of long-past religious discrimination. School choice opponents, led by lawyers for the teachers’ unions, claim that Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutionally “aid” religious schools in violation of the Florida Constitution’s Blaine Amendment. But, as the amicus briefs to be filed today argue, not only is such an interpretation at odds with Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, but, if adopted by the state’s highest court, it would put dozens of similar, long-standing Florida aid programs at risk.

Florida Scholarship Families and Education Associations: Save Our Choices

“I would not be able to go to the school of my choice or complete my dream without my scholarship,” said Leah Cousart, who won a publicly funded Bright Futures Scholarship and relies on it to attend Southeastern College, a private religious university in Lakeland, Fla. “If you take away the right of people to use the scholarship at any accredited college, including a religious school, then it is a crime against those who have worked for the scholarship.”

“Parents know their children and need to be able to decide what’s best for them in all areas, especially education,” added Micelle Emery, whose daughter Aislinn and son Erid will be eligible to attend preschool under Florida’s recently-enacted universal pre-K program. Micelle intends to send her children to Alpha Christian Academy in Winter Park, Fla. “Why should I lose my right to send my children to a school that promotes the values, the level of education and the safety that is important to me simply because that school is religious?”

Leah and Micelle joined Ed and Carmen Delgado, whose sons David and Francisco attend Tampa Baptist Academy using McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, and Martha Parker, whose son Lucius, receives a scholarship through the Corporate Tax Credit program for Tampa Baptist Academy, in a brief asking the Florida Supreme Court to uphold Opportunity Scholarships. McKay, Bright Futures and Corporate Tax Credit scholarships, as well as the universal pre-K program, are among the programs at risk from a decision against Opportunity Scholarships.

Also joining the brief are Florida non-profit education associations representing private and religious schools that serve students on publicly funded scholarships, including the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, the Florida Council of Independent Schools, the Child Development Education Alliance and the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, as well as Bishop Harold Ray’s Redemptive Life Academy, a private religious school in West Palm Beach that serves students in all three of Florida’s K-12 school choice programs and intends to participate in the universal pre-K program.

The families’ brief argues that the Florida Supreme Court should overturn a lower court ruling against Opportunity Scholarships because that decision threatens to cast a cloud of constitutional doubt on a wide range of health, welfare, educational, and social services programs that serve the vital needs of some of Florida’s least fortunate citizens.

The brief notes that programs just like Opportunity Scholarships have existed for decades, quietly serving students by permitting them to choose from among a wide range of schools—including private, religiously affiliated schools—and asks the court not to undermine the long-settled legitimacy of these programs.

Attorneys Lansing C. Scriven of Tampa and Robert R. Gasaway, Ashley C. Parrish and Padraic B. Fennelly of Kirkland and Ellis, LLP, in Washington, D.C., authored the brief.

Minority and Education Reform Organizations: Preserve Equal Educational Opportunity

In a second amicus brief, minority advocacy and education reform organizations argue that Opportunity Scholarships, which predominantly serve African-American and Hispanic students, provide quality educational opportunities otherwise denied to underprivileged students in Florida’s failing public schools, spur those failing public schools to improve and promote racial integration and tolerance.

On behalf of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO), Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the Center for Education Reform and the Reason Foundation, the brief argues that social science research shows that “school choice programs benefit not only the children who are able to transfer out of failing public schools, but also the public schools themselves, which, contrary to the factually baseless arguments of some opponents, do not get worse as a result of exposure to competition, but improve.”

The brief was authored by Prof. G. Marcus Cole of Stanford Law School, Carlos G. Muniz of GrayRobinson in Tallahassee, and of counsel Briscoe R. Smith of the Atlantic Legal Foundation.

Religious Educational, Social Service and Legal Organizations: Religious Discrimination is Unconstitutional

A third amicus brief, co-authored by noted religious liberty experts Prof. Richard W. Garnett of the Notre Dame Law School and Prof. Thomas C. Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, argues that striking down Opportunity Scholarships merely because families are free to choose religious options amounts to unconstitutional religious discrimination in violation of the federal Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. The brief also describes the historical development of state Blaine Amendments as a product of anti-Catholic bigotry.

The brief was authored on behalf of the Salvation Army, Friends of Lubavitch of Florida, Inc., the Association of Christian Schools International, American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Schools International, the Florida Catholic Conference and the Christian Legal Society.

Read the amicus briefs