Op-Ed: Public money for private schools? Could be a game-changer

Posted on December 28, 2010 In No categories

The following op ed was written by Howie Beigelman, OU Deputy Director of Public Policy for The Palm Beach Post:

Gov.-elect Rick Scott solidified his reputation as a bomb-thrower – in a good way – by suggesting the state open education savings accounts for all schoolchildren. Parents would direct that money to any traditional public, public charter or private school they chose.

Even before a formal proposal has been issued or any legislation drafted, the idea has been criticized as both unconstitutional and poor public policy by among other, this paper’s Editorial Board.

Not so fast. Mr. Scott’s proposal is a game changer in education policy not only in Florida but across the nation. Still, there are legitimate concerns:

• Florida’s constitution, like 38 others has a “no aid” provision, called the Blaine Amendment after 19th-century Congressman James G. Blaine . Blaine amendments forbid direct state aid to sectarian institutions, including schools.
• In 2006, Florida’s Supreme Court, ruling on then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s signature education reforms, found that the private school portion of the Opportunity Scholarships program violated the state’s constitutional requirement of “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality” public schools. Any diversion of money to a separate system violated what the court viewed as an exclusive constitutional provision: the state can fund only public schools. Additionally, it ruled that private schools by definition violate the uniformity requirement.

Some argue that ends the discussion. We think not.

First, no Blaine provision in any state constitution has ever been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Blaine is a discriminatory throwback to the 19th century when anti-Catholic bigotry was given legal sanction. Despite institutionalizing discrimination against Christians, Jews and others of all faiths, Blaine survives into the 21st century through a combination of legal inertia and the political prowess of the teachers’ unions.
It’s time a court rules Blaine out of order, or the people amend Blaine out of existence by ballot. Even with Blaine still on the books, indirect aid is constitutional. By this legal logic other programs, including tax credit scholarships in Florida and elsewhere, benefit parochial schools.

Regarding the uniformity clause, it is a truism that private schools are not uniform. All the state needs to ensure uniformity is to set basic standards as to what would make a uniform education. Private schools wanting state aid would commit to those standards.

Dissenting justices in the voucher case questioned whether the state constitution really means that only public schools can receive public education dollars. Florida, other states and the federal government all provide Head Start funds, college scholarships, affordable housing stipends, food stamps and Medicare/aid coverage to people in need. They do not mandate only one location or one provider. Private preschools access Head Start and Florida’s own voluntary pre-K, private and public universities accept state scholarship funds, Section 8 housing goes to any landlord willing to accept it, food stamps are used in any grocery that will take them, and so long as your doctors accept your insurance, you can see them.
Imagine if the government owned supermarkets and required food stamps be used only there? Or required you to live in public housing? What if only government hospitals could accept Medicare?
Those questions are the game changers here. Mr. Scott is asking what our goal is for education and how best to get there. If the answer is we aim to educate children in the highest quality, most cost-efficient manner, than perhaps even if it requires amending a constitution, such policy is worth pursuing.

Whatever Floridians decide, it’s a question worth asking. We at the Orthodox Union are ready to engage in the debate. Policymakers, educators, and parents across Florida should be ready, too.