Defeat for School Choice in Florida

I was gearing up to write a response to the Florida Supreme Court decision that strikes down a school choice plan as unconstitutional, but Baseball Crank did such a nice job, I will refer you to him.  The plan as crafted allowed students in low-performance schools to opt out with  a voucher for another public or private school.  The justices struck down the law because they felt that the Florida Constitution which requires a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of education thereby necessitates schools run by the government only.  Their "logic" was that using a public voucher at a private school thwarted the "uniform" part.

But here is the scary part of their interpretation of "uniform".  Most reasonable people would read the Constitution as meaning "uniform in quality".  But the voucher law as written almost by definition increases the uniformity of quality.  The vouchers were offered only to students at low performing schools.  The recipients of the vouchers could then stay at the same school or use the voucher to go to another school.  Since a voucher holder will only go to a different school if they perceive that school to be better than the school they are leaving, the law increases the net quality of education received (at least in the eyes of parents, though perhaps not in the eyes of the NEA or the education intelligentsia).  By any reasonable definition, improving the education of the kids receiving the worst education as determined by consistent standards should actually improve uniformity of quality, not reduce it.  From a quality standpoint, I would argue it is unconstitutional in Florida NOT to have this school choice plan.

So if it is not uniformity of quality that is being discussed, it must be uniformity of something else.  As Baseball Crank points out, what is left is a strongly Maoist overtone of uniformity of thought -- that everyone is receiving the same state programming.  This ability to opt out of state programming has always been at least as powerful of a driver for private and home schooling as bad quality.  While public education has been controlled mostly by the left, the right has been the main group "opting-out".  However, as the right takes over the left's cherished institutions, I made a plea a while back to the left to reconsider school choice:

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it...

  • BobH

    Your plea to the left ignores the fact that opposition to vouchers on the left is driven primarily by a political consideration: the teachers' unions are incredibly powerful in the Democratic Party and no Democrat dares oppose them.

  • When I read about this story, rather than read up on the specifics of the case, I read over the Florida Constitution and noticed the part where it says, "The income derived from the state school fund shall, and the principal of the fund may, be appropriated, but only to the support and maintenance of free public schools." That's what I thought the judge was picking up on.

    Either way, it is still a defeat for school choice in Florida. I hope that in 50 years, parents will look back and say, "Can you believe there was a time when we had to pay for public schools while our kids are in private schools?" "Yeah, I know, that must have hurt the pocketbooks for those who wanted to improve their kids educations!" "Simply barbaric!"

  • The thing is, laws like this are a kind of trojan horse. I'm generally for voucher programs (although sympathetic that they might inherently _all_ have these faults), but a voucher that's only issued to parents in failing districts simply means that those districts have an incentive to get themselves out of the "failing" category...either by spending more money or by lobbying to change the definition of "success".

    Either way, the incentive is to change something superficial and unimportant (the definitions or the statistics) while ignoring the liberty interest that's crucial.

    There's another interpretation of "uniform" that the Florida voucher law violated...uniformity of _policy_. If the law provided that, it would have been worth fighting for. The way it was written, the best possible consequence would have been a few of the worst schools in the state sprucing things up a bit and then returning to the same old Broken As Designed way of doing business. A good voucher law is one that drives a serious nail into the coffin of the whole idea of public provision of education.

  • Travis

    That public schools tend to be lousy is beyond
    dispute. However, vouchers are not the answer.
    Once state gets its tentacles into private schools through vouchers, it will wreak havoc on them too. Only viable solution is to get gov't
    completely out of school system.

    Travis