Parents Gear Up For Crucial School Choice Court Hearing

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 22, 2000

Washington, D.C. – Parents of children enrolled in private schools under Florida’s A+ education reform program and their lawyers are gearing up for a crucial first-round argument before Judge L. Ralph Smith in Tallahassee this Thursday.

At issue is whether the Florida Constitution permits the use of any public funds to provide public education in private schools. A two-hour argument is scheduled on Thursday, February 25 at 9 a.m. in the Leon County Circuit Court.

“This issue has crucial ramifications not only for school choice, but for the State’s ability to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide a high-quality education for all Florida school children,” declared Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, which represents parents and school children in the opportunity scholarship program.

The Institute for Justice will present data obtained from the state and school districts showing that more than 8,500 school children are already being educated in private schools at public expense at a cost exceeding $46 million annually. By contrast, this year 58 students are attending private schools with opportunity scholarships costing less than $200,000.

The students currently in private schools include 3,825 in dropout prevention programs for at-risk students, 3,459 in juvenile justice programs and at least 1,347 in exceptional (disabled) student programs.

“The point is that sometimes we have to go outside public schools to fulfill the goals of public education,” Bolick explained. “Opportunity scholarships are necessary to help kids who had previously been consigned to failing public schools.”

Judge Smith separated the funding issue from other legal issues in the case because it can be determined on the basis of legal arguments, while the remaining issues require a trial.

Two parents whose children receive opportunity scholarships will travel from Pensacola to Tallahassee for the hearing.

“I felt like I won the lottery when my daughter was chosen to participate in Florida’s opportunity scholarship program,” said Tracy Richardson, whose daughter in enrolled in the choice program. “The scholarship program allowed me to match up her individual needs with a private school’s specialized curriculum, methods and activities.”

“While other school reform efforts offer promises of hope at some uncertain date, school choice is the only education reform that provides my daughter, and many more like her, with a quality education today,” said Dermita Merkman, whose daughter attends private school through the A+ program.”