Florida Supreme Court: Choice is Unconstitutional

January 5, 2006

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Today, school choice across the nation was handed a significant loss when the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Andrew J. Coulson, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, is available for comment.

Coulson writes: “In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program today on the grounds that it isn’t part of the ‘uniform’ government-run system mandated by Title IX, section 1(a) of Florida’s constitution.

“In a 5 to 2 majority, the justices ruled that allowing parents to choose from a diverse array of independent schools violated the state constitution, regardless of whether parents preferred having choice or whether students benefited from it.

“In fact, the court explicitly discounted educational outcomes as a consideration in their deliberations. When oral arguments were heard in the case last spring, one justice asked the plaintiffs’ attorney: ‘You would agree, would you not, that whether (voucher schools) have been an overwhelming success or an utter failure, is, really, irrelevant to whether the program is constitutional?’

“John West, the attorney for voucher program opponents, answered: ‘Absolutely, your honor. Absolutely’

“Legally speaking, they were absolutely right. But the people of Florida are now left with a rather important question: is it really a good idea to have a constitution that forbids them from organizing their schools according to what actually works?

“Consider the language of Title IX, section 1(a) of Florida’s constitution, which declares that ‘[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.’

“This wording fails even to entertain the possibility that a one-size-fits-all government monopoly might not be conducive to efficiency and uniformly high quality. And yet, though Americans spend roughly $120,000 on each child’s government schooling, our high-school seniors are near the bottom of the international heap on tests of mathematics and science, and about a quarter of our 16-to-25 year-olds are barely literate.

“Rather than locking ourselves in to a system that produces such appalling results at such enormous cost, Americans — in Florida and elsewhere — should be trying to find a better, more flexible, more efficient approach to organizing schools, one that can respond to both our shared educational demands and our diverse needs and preferences.”

Contact Kristen Kestner at 202-789-5212 or kkestner [at] cato [dot] org if you would like to speak with Andrew Coulson.