In Reply Brief, Institute for Justice and Florida Parents Urge Florida Supreme Court to Save School Choice

Institute for Justice · March 21, 2005

Washington, D.C.—Today the Institute for Justice will file its reply brief urging the Florida Supreme Court to uphold the state’s Opportunity Scholarships program, which enables parents in failing public schools to choose better-performing public or private schools for their children, including religious schools. The Institute, the nation’s leading legal advocate for school choice, represents parents using Opportunity Scholarships and the Urban League of Greater Miami.

Responding to claims made by lawyers for teachers’ unions and other special interests challenging Opportunity Scholarships, IJ argues that decades of Florida practice and precedent have enabled thousands of students to freely choose their schools—including public, private and religious options—using publicly funded scholarships, and there is no reason to change course now.

Those opposed to K-12 school choice argue that Opportunity Scholarships are unconstitutional “aid” religious schools in violation of the Florida Constitution’s Blaine Amendment.

But IJ points out that not only do Opportunity Scholarships “aid” parents and students—not schools—but they operate just like similar Florida education and social service programs that have for decades allowed aid recipients to freely choose among religious and non-religious service providers. For more than 50 years, Florida has offered programs like Bright Futures college scholarships, Florida Resident Access Grants, Medicaid and drug treatment programs where participants can choose to spend their aid at public, religious or non-religious institutions.

In the education arena alone, IJ calculates that, at a minimum, the scholarships and grants of nearly 200,000 students in 11 programs would be in jeopardy—plus the estimated 90,000 to 150,000 students expected to participate in the new pre-K program.

“Like ostriches with their heads in the sand, school choice opponents duck the critical question: if Opportunity Scholarships are unconstitutional, what happens to the dozens of similar education, social service and health care programs that serve hundreds of thousands of Floridians?” said IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily. “The self-serving claims of those opposed to true K-12 education reform threaten to dismantle a network of services that have served Floridians well for decades.”

Neily concluded, “The Florida Supreme Court should continue its evenhanded approach, neither favoring nor disfavoring religious options in public welfare programs—and it should preserve these vital educational opportunities for Florida’s neediest schoolchildren.”