(FinalCall.com) – On Jan. 6, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that the state school voucher program is unconstitutional. This decision stunned the school voucher community and was lauded by its opponents.
“The governor (Jeb Bush) should not spend taxpayer dollars fighting an ideological battle and instead focus on making sure that every public school provides quality education,” said Bruce Gordon, president & CEO of the NAACP.
The Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches was among several plaintiffs that challenged the legality of the program that allowed some children to attend private schools at taxpayers’ expense.
Florida’s highest court ruled 5-2 that the program (Opportunity Scholarships Program) violates the state constitution’s requirement of a uniform system of free public schools. National Education Association (NEA) President Reg Weaver called the decision a resounding rejection of school vouchers and a crystal clear win for students, parents and public schools.
“The court said loud and clear that vouchers take resources, focus and attention away from our neighborhood schools,” Mr. Weaver said. “Today’s ruling echoes what NEA has said all along: We must strengthen our public schools so that all children, not just a few, have access to quality education.”
Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice Barbara Pariente said the Opportunity Scholarship Program “diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the state constitution for educating Florida’s children.”
Justice Pariente said, “The diversion of money, not only reduces public funds for a public education, but also uses public funds to provide an alternative education in private schools that are not subject to the ‘uniformity` requirements for public schools.”
It’s a different story in Washington, D.C., where the federally funded vouchers program, administered by the Washington Scholarship Fund, is receiving rave reviews. In a study released last October by Georgetown University, the families of students enrolled at non-public D.C. schools through the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program reported being extremely satisfied with the program.
“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is proving to be a true success story in just its second year, and this new study clearly demonstrates how our children can benefit from an opportunity like this,” said Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. “The students are thriving and the parents are very enthusiastic and involved. These study results underscore the critical importance of school choice.”
In its second academic year, more than 1,700 low-income D.C. students are currently enrolled in 58 participating non-public District of Columbia schools. The average annual household income of these students is less than $19,000. Scholarship students receive up to $7,500 per year to pay for tuition, transportation and academic fees at participating non-public D.C. schools.
“Georgetown’s study shows that students and parents will flourish when they have a chance to choose their academic setting,” said Joseph Robert Jr., chairman of WSF’s Board of Directors. “Scholarship students and their parents are reporting better academics, higher levels of involvement and a great desire to go to college. This program has given these deserving families new hope through educational opportunity.”
The option of choice is what attracted Anthony Muhammad to the program. His granddaughter is able to attend Muhammad University of Islam because of vouchers.
“I didn’t want her to go to public school and couldn’t afford private schools. The voucher program was great for us because we got the school of our choice,” he told The Final Call. “Parents have to remember though that they just can’t send their children to any school just because they have vouchers. They still have to be admitted into the school. Their child still has to meet the acceptance criteria of the school.”
On the other hand, he added, “The negative side of vouchers is that it gives the government a way out of educating their children.”
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, which brought the case, expressed support for parents’ right to send their children to religious schools, but opposed the use of public funds to do so.
“Vouchers siphon money from already overburdened public schools to private schools,” he argued, “that charge for their services, select their students on the basis of academic or family or personal characteristics, and are accountable only to their boards and clients.”