Commentary

Florida’s Wright Stuff

This article appeared in the American Spectator on April 28, 2006.

Comedian Steven Wright once claimed that he had named his dog “Stay.” Every time he called for him, he’d say: “Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay!” Confused the heck out of him.

The Florida Supreme Court has done pretty much the same thing to legislators on the subject of education.

Florida’s Constitution requires the state to maintain a uniform system of free public schools. It doesn’t say that this system must be the only education policy the state adopts, just that such a system has to exist.

But that’s not how the state Supreme Court read it when five of its justices struck down the Opportunity Scholarships school voucher program in January. They inferred that because the Constitution mentions a uniform public school system, it automatically forbids any alternatives.

This puts the state’s elected representatives in a bit of a bind, because the Constitution also demands that Florida’s education system be “efficient, safe, secure, and high quality,” allowing students “to obtain a high quality education.”

“Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay!”

The problem is that a one-size-fits-all education system isn’t the best way to provide efficiency, safety, or high quality, no matter how the Court chooses to interpret the Constitution.

Consider, for instance, that Florida’s public schools spend around $8,000 a year, per pupil — more than one-and-a-half times the average independent school tuition. That doesn’t exactly make the public system look like a paragon of efficiency. Of course, some independent schools have revenue sources other than tuition, but in a forthcoming study of Arizona I find that even after considering non-tuition revenues, independent schools still spend far less than the public schools.

As for safety, one out of every 12 Florida students reported having been threatened or injured with a weapon at school in 2003, according to a recent federal study.

Finally, high quality has also proven elusive. Sure, test scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) often go up from year to year, but if you got to perform your own employee review, don’t you think your ratings would go up, too? The FCAT is designed and administered by the same system that it is supposed to evaluate. Nice work if you can get it.

To really get at the truth, it’s better to use more objective performance measures like graduation rates or SAT scores. And the truth isn’t pretty. According to two independent studies of the nation’s public school graduation rates (one by the Urban Institute, another by the Manhattan Institute), Florida falls between sixth-to-last and second-to-last place among the states, depending on how you crunch the numbers.

And Florida’s SAT scores? They are below average in Math and far below average on the Verbal portion of the test — results that can’t be explained away by demographics. Even Floridians whose first language is English have Verbal SAT scores 15 points below the nationwide average for such students.

So despite decades of improvement efforts, it would be hard to argue that Florida’s “uniform” public schools are the efficient, safe, high quality institutions that the Constitution demands.

Ironically, they aren’t particularly uniform either.

Nassau County schools spent a little over $6,200 per pupil in 2003. Hamilton county spent upwards of $13,600. Is that uniformity? Nassau’s test scores are usually quite high, while Hamilton’s are generally low. Not a lot of uniformity there either.

With results like these, it seems reasonable to ask if there are alternatives to the status quo that would do a better job of fulfilling children’s needs. Reasonable, but illegal. Thanks to the state Supreme Court, state legislators are not allowed to color outside the lines. If they do, no matter what kinds of education alternatives they come up with, they’ll likely get rapped on the knuckles by the judiciary.

This makes no sense. The legislature is being asked to squeeze efficiency, safety, quality, and uniformity out of a school system that is still not especially efficient, safe, high-quality, or uniform despite having been around for more than a century.

You don’t have to be an advocate of any particular education reform to recognize the seriousness of this problem — or to see the solution. An amendment to the Florida Constitution explicitly allowing representatives to consider alternative educational options would free them from the straightjacket into which the Supreme Court has forced them.

In the process, it might finally give all Florida children a real chance at that safe, efficient, high quality education they’ve been promised.

Andrew Coulson is Director of the Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.