The check that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to cash during his historic “I Have A Dream” speech was for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet, more than a half-century later on this day of hallowed commemoration, we in Florida find ourselves engaged against those who would deny our children their basic right to education. We fight this time to keep our children in schools that provide them hope.
In the state capital on Tuesday, Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, will join thousands of public education disciples who no longer can accept that there is but one academic prescription for all children. He will lead a rally that expresses the belief that all students, not just those whose families can afford preferred neighborhoods or private academies, should be able to pick the school that best fits their needs. Mr. King will join those of us who are frankly stunned at the callous attempt to remove 78,000 underprivileged children from private schools that are working for them — nearly 21,000 in Miami-Dade alone.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, now 15 years old, is making a difference in the lives of these children, and you need not take my word for it. The data tells the story. More than two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half are from single-parent households, and the average household income is only 7 percent above the poverty line. These students were often the worst performers in the public schools they left behind. However, for seven consecutive years, standardized test scores show they are as whole achieving the same academic gains as students of all incomes across the nation. What would possibly cause the Florida Education Association, our state’s main teacher union, to ask a court to shut down this program?
The scholarship is but one of the myriad options in this state that serve 1.5 million preK-12 students — roughly 43 percent of the total — and strengthen public education in the process. The choices include magnet schools, open and dual enrollment opportunities, career academies, the International Baccalaureate program, online courses, and charter schools. Most relevant to this lawsuit, five different programs allow a half-million of these students to attend privately-operated schools. With these facts at hand, the FEA chose to sue only the one that aims to help the poorest children.
The union has argued that these scholarships take money away from traditional schools, but a Tallahassee judge, who dismissed the challenge in May, found no financial harm and the state has determined the program actually saves money that can help all students.
For those of us who have observed a history of racial segregation, academic hand-me-downs, and an intolerable achievement gap, we find ourselves at another inflection point. As Florida expands the menu of learning options for all children, we fight for the one that helps the least among us.
No one argues that these scholarships are a magic solution to breaking the persistent cycle of poverty in our society. But they clearly do help some children, and Dr. King, who argued that education should promote “intelligence plus character,” would be pleased to know many scholarship schools are propelled by a faith-based mission to provide inspiration, discipline and academic challenge to students of color.
“In a sense,” Dr. King said a half century ago on the Washington Mall, “we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
So much has changed for the better since this momentous call for justice that it seems incomprehensible we would need to fight over educational opportunity for the underprivileged. But as we must, we will stand at the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday to make our voices heard.
Bishop Victor T. Curry leads the New Birth Baptist Church of Miami, which includes the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy, and is chairman of the Save Our Scholarships Coalition.