Saturday, January 07, 2006


Florida Flabbergaster

Most casual news consumers will probably see this week's decision by the Florida Supreme Court to outlaw the state's Opportunity Scholarships program as just the latest in a series of legal rulings in the voucher wars.

But I would urge anyone who cares about the inequities in our public education system to read the fine print of the ludicrous Florida opinion -- and the fine exposition of it by New York Times columnist John Tierney in Saturday's paper -- to understand the much broader and troubling implications of this case for urban school reform.

As Tierney points out, the Supreme Court chose not to ground its decision in the state's Blaine amendment, which prohibits using state funding to aid religious institutions, as most other voucher-hostile state courts have in similar circumstances (including the lower court that originally invalidated the Florida program). Instead, the majority ruled that the Florida voucher program violated the state constitution's requirement to make "adequate provision . . . for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

The logic behind this rationale is beyond bizarre -- it is fantastical. First off, regardless of what you think about state funded vouchers as a policy tool, independent studies of the Florida program seem to show that participating students are doing better in the private schools they have switched to -- as are the public schools who losing students and are thus being forced to improve to compete. If that is the case, it begs credulity to suggest that this initiative is somehow undermining the state's ability to provide a uniform, high-quality system of public schools.

But the real mind-blower in this ruling is what's left unsaid about the chronically underperforming public schools that the voucher kids are trying to escape. How on earth could the court conclude with a straight face that the successful voucher program violates the uniform, high-quality requirement but the disastrous public schools in Miami and other urban districts themselves do not?

I'm sorry, but on the constitutional harm-ometer, I think the failures of the public officials running the state's urban public school districts -- which are systematically denying thousands upon thousands of children access to a decent education (forget about a high-quality one) to placate politically-powerful interest groups -- rank just a little higher.

Now, in highlighting the follies of this decision, I am not making the case for vouchers. While I am open to voucher experiments, and am hard-pressed to argue against the moral case made by voucher advocates like the admirable Howard Fuller, I do not believe private school choice is ultimately an effective large-scale solution for closing the achievement gap separating the haves and have nots in our society. I believe our priority has to be to reform and modernize our public education system, reorder its priorities, and refocus it on meeting the needs of children (not the adults working in it) and producing results.

And that in the end is why I found the Florida court decision so disturbing -- its ramifications for public education reform efforts in the 15 other states that have similar uniformity provisions in their state constitutions.

Consider the example of charter schools, which are independently-run public schools that have shown great promise as a gap-closing instrument in low-income communities. As Tierney and others have noted, under the Florida court's supremely-twisted logic, charter schools could be found to violate the "uniform" benchmark and thus be outlawed. So could other unconventional public school models that don't look like the cookie-cutter, lowest-common-denominator form most urban public schools still take today.

Hopefully we can use this legal lunacy as a learning moment. If nothing else, it brings into stark relief the consequential choice that policy-makers and by extension the American people have to make about the future of our public education system. Is the priority uniformity in structure and governance -- even if it means mass mediocrity and indefensible inequities for another generation of children? Or is the priority uniformity in achievement -- that we have great schools of many shapes and sizes and equal opportunities for all kids?

You be the judge.

This mess also shows why constitutions should never entrench social policy.
Which (implied) consensus of independent studies are you discussing? Figlio and Rouse's work (the best of the bunch, in my opinion) suggest that a scarlet-letter effect is largely responsible for any improvement in Florida public schools that others attribute to vouchers. Beyond that, though, courts don't get to decide constitutional questions primarily based on the swirling maelstrom of research on vouchers. The court was supposed to look at the constitution, and that's what it did (regardless of whether you agree with their interpretation). Anything else smacks of reasoning-by-results.

I'd also look a little more carefully at the opinion. As I've explained elsewhere, the majority opinion didn't define uniformity.
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