In tossing out a lawsuit that sought to abolish a 14-year-old scholarship for poor schoolchildren, Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds last month made a legal point that is worth putting into educational context. He dismissed the suit because he could find no evidence the scholarships “diverted resources” from traditional public schools or harmed any public school students, calling such claims “speculative.”
Let’s think about that. Two respected education groups — the Florida Education Association, the union representing teachers, and the Florida Schools Boards Association — have been behind a lawsuit that seeks to evict 70,000 of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students from private schools that test scores show are working for them. They even hint they will take this all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. And yet the judge suggests these scholarships come at no cost to the district schools these groups run.
So why would they want to remove these children from their chosen schools?
This scholarship is not an attack on public education and never has been. It simply gives a private learning option to children whose families can’t otherwise afford it. It is fully consistent with the futuristic changes that are well under way across public education, as parents are offered a broad array of choices in order to help them match their children to the schools that work best for them.
That list keeps growing and includes magnet schools, open enrollment, career academies, online courses, lab schools, charter schools, scholarships for students with special needs. Last year, 1.5 million preK-12 students — or 42 percent of them — chose a school other than the one assigned to them based on where they live.
So why pick on an option for poor children?
This year, the average scholarship student in Florida lives only 5 percent above poverty. (For the 18,542 scholarship students in Miami-Dade, the average income is 2 percent below poverty.) Two-thirds are black or Hispanic (91 percent in Miami-Dade). More than half live with a single parent. Test scores show they were among the lowest achievers in the schools they left behind.
Standardized test results show us these same students are now consistently achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of incomes across the nation, and we know that the public schools most affected by the loss of scholarship students are themselves making encouraging academic progress. The judge’s order also reminds us of what every independent financial evaluation has shown — that the $5,272 scholarships save tax money that can be used to help traditional public schools.
This is not a competition. Traditional neighborhood schools are the backbone of public education and deserve our full support. But we would be foolish to think that, in a state where only 48 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch are reading at grade level and where the graduation rate for black males hovers at 56 percent, maintaining the status quo is a viable strategy.
Those of us who work in neighborhoods where children often want for their next meal and struggle to see hope in their lives know there are no simple answers here. It takes every one of us and every education tool we can offer. In this battle against an insidious cycle of generational poverty that too often robs children of their future, we count each victory one child at a time.
The judge last month told us what we knew already — that scholarships for the least among us work in harmony with traditional public schools — so it’s past time for the legal fight to end. For the sake of these children, we need to work together.
Bishop Victor T. Curry is chairman of the Save Our Scholarships Coalition and leads the New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, which includes the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy.