Commentary

Is it Really ‘Public’ Education If Voters Get No Say?

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that will shape the future of education in Florida. At issue are two constitutional amendment questions slated to go before voters in November.

A lawyer for Florida’s teachers union will argue that they should be removed from the ballot; the secretary of state’s lawyer will ask the court to leave them in place, allowing voters to decide these questions. The court should let Floridians have their say.

The first question, Amendment 7, deals with religious discrimination. This amendment would make it illegal to exclude any person or organization from participating in a public program because of religion. It also would allow the state to continue operating programs under which religious organizations can receive funding as long as the purposes and primary effects of those programs are secular (as required by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).

Would it even make sense to keep calling it a ‘public’ school system if voters are given no voice in the matter? ”

The second question, Amendment 9, would require at least 65 percent of school-district operating expenditures to be spent in the classroom rather than on administration. It also would allow legislators to create alternative education programs in addition to the constitutionally required public-school system (though it wouldn’t create any new programs).

Judge John Cooper of Tallahassee’s Circuit Court already approved both questions for inclusion on the November ballot, and opponents have asked the state Supreme Court to reverse his decision. It would be a surprise if the court were to oblige them. Cooper’s written opinion was short and simple, demonstrating that the questions were legally added to the ballot, and that their wording is not misleading as plaintiffs claimed.

But although the legal details of the case seem almost trivial, the principles at stake, especially on Amendment 9, are momentous. This question would decide whether Florida children have access to the best system of education legislators can devise, or if they will be forced to make do with the status quo. And the status quo is nothing to cheer about.

In the early grades, Florida students have made some promising academic headway in recent years, but SAT scores are down from a decade ago — a decline that can’t be fully explained by changes in the number of students taking the test. Florida’s graduation rate places it 42nd in the nation, even though it is in the middle of the pack when it comes to total spending per pupil ($12,000 last year).

But, ever since the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Bush v. Holmes, legislators have been forbidden to offer families any new alternatives to the traditional public-school system. If Amendment 9 does make it onto the ballot, and voters approve it, lawmakers would once again be free to design new educational options to serve Florida families. The amendment wouldn’t create a single new program; it would just permit legislators to create such programs if they wished to do so.

And that’s what’s so remarkable about the case before the court on Wednesday. The Florida Education Association, the union representing the state’s public-school employees, has sued to prevent Floridians from even having a say on the future of public education. Would it even make sense to keep calling it a “public” school system if voters are given no voice in the matter?

It’s no surprise that the union opposes this amendment, because it opposes any education program that would provide families with an alternative to the schools employing its members. That’s only natural. And it’s no surprise that school-choice supporters are in favor of the amendment, because many of their proposals will be impossible without it.

But, in the end, it is the people’s education system, and the people should have a right to decide whether or not they want alternatives to it.

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.