It’s time to end the lawsuit against poor children
By Congressman Al Lawson
Special to the Outlook
Those who know me from my years in the Florida House and Senate know that I have always fought for public education in Florida. However, my definition of what “public education” actually means took an interesting turn over the last decade. I watched with interest as parents began to choose to send their children to district magnet schools and charter schools. I saw students use taxpayer dollars to use the Florida Virtual School and classes at colleges and community colleges while attending their local schools. Now over 40 percent of children funded by Florida taxpayers don’t attend their zoned district school. In Dade County that figure is over 60 percent.
I have to admit that in 2001 when the Florida legislature created one new aspect of this new definition of public education–the tax credit scholarship program– I did not vote for it. I was conditioned by tradition to think that any program that helped kids, even really poor kids, attend anything other than their zoned district school was not a good thing.
However, I always listen to my constituents. They often show me that my positions need to be modified, and that was the case with this program. Many times people would come up to me and thank me for creating the scholarship program—even though I hadn’t voted for it. They told me how they were desperate for an alternative for their children—not because their assigned school was bad, but because it just wasn’t a good fit for their children. The last straw was when I was in the hospital and my nurse lavished praise on me for creating it, saying it saved her child. I was a convert.
I went on to co-sponsor bills expanding the program while I was Democratic Leader in the state Senate. I wasn’t alone in listening to constituents—by 2008 half of the Democrats in the House, a third in the Senate, and a majority of the overall Black Caucus voted to expand the program. I was honored when I was asked to join the board of the main non-profit that administers the program. I receive no compensation for doing so.
Given my experience with the program, you can imagine my dismay when the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit in 2014 to shut it down. I couldn’t understand why they would want to end a program that is helping the poorest—and poorest performing—children in the public schools. The program serves fewer than 4 percent of the kids in Florida’s public schools, and its annual budget is less than 3 percent of the state’s education budget.
Most people understand the damage this suit would do to the 100,000 poor children who would be evicted from their schools. But I don’t hear many talking about the damage it would do to the school districts. They just won’t be able to absorb those kids. We already read stories about districts like Orange and Osceola that are dealing with overcrowded schools. If the program ends, many districts will be plunged into fiscal and operational chaos. How does this help them?
The union says that they are upset that the scholarships can be used at faith based schools. But families use taxpayer funds to pay tuition at faith based schools under our Voluntary Pre-K and Bright Futures college scholarship programs. A majority of the 30,000 McKay Scholarship children using taxpayer funds to pay private school tuition do so at faith based ones. Why hasn’t the FEA filed suit against these programs?
Given the social justice context of this lawsuit, I have not been surprised at the strong reaction from the community. Over 200 black and Hispanic ministers around the state have denounced the suit. In January—the day after the MLK holiday–over 10,000 people marched on Tallahassee to protest the lawsuit. They listened to MLK III demand that it be dropped.
Three of the original plaintiffs—including the Florida PTA and the school boards association—heard these voices and dropped from the suit. For the good of the scholarship children, the school districts —and their own legacy—the FEA should do the same.