In January of this year, the day after his father’s holiday, I shared a stage in Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III. Over 10,000 people stood before us, most of them minorities. Many had travelled all night from all corners of the state to send a message to the Florida teachers union: Don’t get between me and my child.
Technically, they were there to fight the lawsuit the union filed to kill the Florida tax credit scholarship. The program is serving 94,000 children from low income families, including 24,000 in Central Florida. Over thirty percent of the children are black. But the issue is bigger than the suit. The vast majority of us agree parents have the right to determine the educational destiny of their children. This isn’t a matter of politics. It’s a matter of fundamental decency.
So why does the union persist with its suit? It has been rebuffed twice now, first in circuit court and then in appeals court. Both said the union couldn’t provide any evidence to back its claims of harm to public schools. Yet the union presses on with an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
Search in vain for an answer that has anything to do with helping children.
The union insists the scholarship is an end-run around the 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s first K-12 voucher unconstitutional. Never mind that scholarship was created in 2001. Never mind, too, that a tax credit scholarship isn’t a voucher. It’s funded by corporate contributions, not government money – a distinction three state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have all found to be legally significant.
The union insists the scholarship drains money from public schools. The claim is baseless. No less than seven independent fiscal impact studies have found the program saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools. Not a single study has found otherwise.
The truth is, school districts will be financially harmed if the union wins. The value of a scholarship, $5,886, is roughly 60 percent of per-pupil costs for public schools. So how will districts pay for a flash flood of 94,000 students? The scholarship children are geographically concentrated in areas of poverty. How will Dade County absorb 24,000 children in a day? Just two contiguous zip codes alone in Orange County have over 2,000 scholarship children. That district will be in chaos if the union prevails.
Despite the union’s talking points, the scholarship has nothing to do with a mythical plot to privatize, and everything to do with expanding opportunity. Nearly 70 percent of scholarship students are black or Hispanic. Their average family income is $24,000 a year. Nearly a decade’s worth of test data shows us they were typically the lowest performers in their prior public schools, but are now making solid progress.
This program isn’t a threat to public education—it’s a part of it. Forty years ago “public education” meant one thing: district run schools assigned to you by your zip code. But every child is different. Today, public education takes many forms—district run magnets, charters, virtual schools, dual enrollment with colleges. We even give vouchers to special needs children to attend private, faith based schools. Why is the union trying to kill the one program that serves poor children of color? A program that serves just 3 percent of our state’s K-12 population, but its most vulnerable? Some districts, to their credit, recognize that we need to move away from uniformity and towards customization. In Dade County, over 60% of K-12 student funded by the taxpayers do not attend their zoned pubic school.
Thankfully, more people see through the smokescreens. Over 200 black and Latino ministers from around the state have formally denounced the suit. The union’s former communications director wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat last month that he was no longer proud of the organization. With its attack on the scholarship, he wrote, it was now engaged “in the immoral equivalent of a war on children.”
All these poor parents want is the power to do what families of means do every day—the power to find the best school for their children. Why would anybody deny them?
Rev. Dr. R.B. Homes is the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, and a member of the Save Our Scholarships Coalition.