(This article was originally published in Spanish in Diario Las Américas)
Future of Hispanic Student Success Hangs on Florida Governor Race
A broad attack on one of Florida’s scholarship programs risks taking Hispanics and other minority students out of their current schools and forcing them back into failing environments. Last August, the statewide teachers union, the school boards association and PTA filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s largest and most successful school voucher program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). Established in 2001, the FTC allows accredited scholarship organizations to provide low-income families with vouchers to enroll their children in a private school of their choice. The program is reviewed annually by an independent evaluator, and – along with a range of performance-driven education policy reforms – has contributed to the rise in academic achievement of thousands of low-income students. In the last 13 years, thanks to the empowerment provided through FTC scholarships, parents have been free to choose the best school for their children.
In the 2014 school year, Florida’s main non-profit scholarship organization “Step up for Students” awarded a total of $274 million in FTC scholarships, and today nearly70,000 students benefit from the program. Florida’s Hispanic students have particularly made the most use of the popular program, representing over 37% of scholarship recipients. African-American and white students respectively represent 32% and 24% of recipients.
Despite the growing number of students benefitting from FTC scholarships, supporters of the lawsuit contend that the program is unconstitutional, claiming it directs public money to fund private schools. However, unlike a previous version of the program which they successfully terminated, the FTC does not use public funds and its scholarships are entirely funded by private donations. Because only private funds are being used, even if the lawsuit is successful, no additional funds will be allocated towards Florida’s public schools. The ultimate consequence of the lawsuit will be that thousands of low-income families, whose children were struggling to perform in public schools, will be forced to pull their kids from their current school and forced back into the very school they were trying to escape from.
This lawsuit is not the only challenge the unions filed against the FTC. After Governor Scott expanded the program in 2014 to provide scholarships to children with special needs, the union filed suit challenging that expansion, jeopardizing the ability of thousands of additional students to choose the school that best meets their needs. That suit is still pending after the union effectively doubled down and refiled a revised complaint after a judge initially decided the plaintiffs could not show how they were harmed by the legislation. Given the impact the lawsuits would have on the children and families that benefit from the scholarships, backers of the lawsuit certainly don’t seem to have the best interest of students at heart. In fact, nowhere in the union's complaint is there a mention of the children’s well-being or academic performance. The goal is simply the self-interest of those who stand to benefit from depriving students and their families of the ability to choose the school they wish to attend.
Since the introduction of school reform policies in Florida, the state’s Hispanic students have made gains in narrowing the racial achievement gap. Today, Hispanic students in Florida currently outscore or tie the 4th grade reading average of all students in 21 states. Despite being a minority-majority state with a percentage of low-income students higher than the national average, Florida students now outperform the national average on fourth- and eighth-grade reading examinations.
Governor Scott has opposed the lawsuit, calling it an “unconscionable” action with “terrible consequences on lives of Florida’s poorest children.” Charlie Crist by contrast, has refused to denounce the action and now stands by the lawsuit – a disappointing reaction for Hispanic families and other supporters of school choice.
While the outcome of the lawsuit remains uncertain, there is growing evidence around the country that school choice is winning the ideological battle around educational reform. There are still too many stories about public schools failing minority students. At a time when alternatives exist, reform has never been more needed to make sure parents are empowered to make the decisions necessary to provide their children with an opportunity to succeed. Florida is proof that educational opportunities, especially for minority low-income students, can be improved by expanding choice. However, the gains of school choice are only visible when our policy makers and interests groups focus on our children, instead of trying to preserve the current status-quo.