Florida School Choice - Op-Ed: Bolick

Making Good on the Promise of Educational Opportunities

By Clint Bolick

Guess who's blocking the schoolhouse doors, threatening to obstruct access to educational opportunities for Florida's most disadvantaged youngsters?

The answer, perhaps surprising, is the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and its allies in People for the American Way, the Florida Education Association, and other special-interest groups have vowed a court challenge to the recently enacted A+ education reform program that makes Florida the first state to offer a money-back guarantee for public education.

The threatened lawsuit is remarkable given that Florida voters recently approved Article 9, Section 1 of the state constitution, which establishes that the "education of children is a fundamental value," and guarantees a public education system "that allows students to obtain a high quality education."

The A+ program, fulfilling a campaign pledge by Gov. Jeb Bush and enacted this spring by a bipartisan majority of the state legislature, makes good on this promise. It strengthens the grading system by which all public schools are assessed. Schools that grade "A" are given financial incentives. Poorly performing schools will get extra attention.

A central ingredient is school choice: parents with children in schools that receive failing grades in two out of four years can send them instead to better public schools or to private schools, using opportunity scholarships provided by the state.

The program makes abundant sense. The state guarantees to all children a high quality education. If it can't make good on that promise, parents can send their children elsewhere. Meanwhile, the program creates a powerful incentive for all schools to offer a quality product.

The program already is working to improve public schooling. In Miami-Dade County, as many as 28 public schools may face "F" ratings. Says superintendent Henry Fraind, "We don't want schools to get on the list. But we will work to get everyone off the list."

Critics like the ACLU argue that allowing kids to escape failing public schools will drain away resources. But that is a matter entirely within the school system's control: if public schools offer a quality product, there will be no opportunity scholarships. On the other hand, when schools fail, we cannot expect parents to sacrifice their children.

That's what makes the A+ program the most promising education reform in the nation. Every incentive works in the direc-tion of improving schools, and toward providing every child with a high quality education. The sad reality is that not every public school today meets that standard. Until they do, parents are given the power to find an alternative.

Reform opponents contend the program is unconstitutional because children can use their opportunity scholarships in private or religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld programs that include religious schools among a broad range of educational choices, and the Wisconsin and Arizona Supreme Courts have approved parental choice programs within the past year.

Florida's Constitution prohibits public funding "in aid of any sectarian institution." But the scholarships aid children, not schools. Florida has a long tradition of school choice, including religious schools among options in such programs as Bright Futures Scholarships, Florida Resident Access Grants, and subsidized daycare. How can a Constitution that guarantees high quality education be contorted to deny it?

Ironically, the ACLU itself is to blame for much of the quandary in which many public schools find themselves. The ACLU's never-ceasing litigation against disciplinary standards and other public school policies has undermined the very schools about which it now belatedly expresses concern.

We don't need yet another lawsuit. It is in everyone's interest to make the A+ program succeed--most of all Florida's schoolchildren.
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Clint Bolick is litigation director at the Institute for Justice in Washington, DC, which defends school choice programs around the nation.

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