Florida, which has the death penalty for convicted murderers, seems ready to impose an intellectual death penalty on poor and minority children who have just begun to escape the confines of their failing public schools.
A state appeals court ruled 2-1 that Gov. Jeb Bush's visionary Opportunity Scholarship Program violates the state constitution's prohibition against spending tax money on sectarian institutions. If the Florida Supreme Court agrees, more than 700 children who are learning and behaving better in private schools thanks to state subsidies will be required to return to the failing public schools from which they were recently liberated.
Freedom of choice for abortion, but no freedom of choice for children already born as to where they might best be educated -- this is a triumph of politics over common sense and a denial of the right of a child to the best possible education. The dissenting judge, Ricky Polston, had it right when he said, "The Florida Constitution should not be construed in a manner that tips the scales of neutrality in favor of more restrictions and less free exercise of religion."
Gov. Bush rightly wonders whether non-education programs like Medicare funding to hospitals with religious affiliations or private colleges could also be threatened.
Approximately half of the students using the $4,241 vouchers are spending them at religious schools and half at other non-religious private schools, but because they are part of the same program, all of the students would be denied access to the funds if the law is struck down.
Under the program, parents are allowed to pull their children from any public school if the school receives an "F" grade twice in four years, as determined by Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. That seems a reasonable standard if the objective is a better educated child. That is not the primary objective of certain liberal activist groups like the NAACP, ACLU and the American Federation of Teachers, all of which oppose vouchers.
It ought to be especially troubling that the NAACP opposes a program designed to elevate poor black students in failing schools. Martin Luther King Jr. believed a good education is essential to a good life. While he fought for the desegregation of schools, today's liberals fight to maintain segregation by income and class. You can bet none of the leaders of the organizations opposing vouchers for the poor would let their own children or grandchildren spend a single day in failing public schools.
The children are not the main concern of activists. For them, politics and power are primary. The politicians take money and votes from teachers unions and their members. In exchange, politicians vote to maintain a monopoly they would not tolerate in almost any other area of state or national life. They support more money for public schools, when record amounts are now being spent with unsatisfactory results. If money and achievement are linked, kids ought to be smarter because we are spending more than ever on education. Why did students learn more in previous generations with virtually no bureaucracy and one-room schoolhouses? Most of the money today goes to prop up a top-heavy bureaucracy and rarely trickles down to benefit the kids.
The liberal politicians and education establishment know that to allow freedom of choice would reveal the bankruptcy of their position (which has already been exposed in poor performance, especially among poor and minority students). Choice would elevate most "boats" but sink theirs. It is outrageous that children are sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and that politicians and education elites would waste the life of a child for their own political ends.
If the Florida Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling, Gov. Bush should actively campaign for a constitutional amendment which allows vouchers. He could be accompanied by poor children in public appearances and in TV ads to drive home the point that children are more important than politicians, judges and education elitists. It is an issue Jeb Bush might use not only to benefit his state's children, but himself should he desire to follow his brother to the White House. "Let my people go" worked for Moses.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.