A day after the nation celebrated the holiday named for his father, Martin Luther King III joined several thousand parents and children at a rally in Tallahassee to support the beleaguered Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), the largest private school choice program in the United States.
“This is about justice," said King. "This is about righteousness. This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child.”
The "Rally in Tally" gathered civil rights and school choice supporters to protest a lawsuit by the state's largest teacher's union, the Florida Education Association (FEA). The suit claims that the scholarship program violates the state constitution because it allegedly takes money away from Florida's public schools.
King said the quarrel between teachers unions and school choice advocates is a false dichotomy, according to the Orlando Sentinel. He claimed that his father would have "said the public system must be supported," but not at the expense of alternatives. "To me, it's not an either-or; it's a both-and."
"What choice does is essentially create options," King said, "particularly for poor and working families that they would not necessarily normally have."
It may be surprising to see the son of the famous civil rights leader at odds with the teacher's unions, but the majority of African Americans agree with him: according to a 2015 survey, fully two thirds of black Americans support school vouchers for low-income families.
The Voucher Idea
Education vouchers were first popularized by Milton Friedman in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom and his 1980 television series Free to Choose (based on the book of the same name). Vouchers provide families with a certificate of government funding that can be used for any school, including private schools. Friedman believed that turning parents into customers would promote competition among schools, thereby improving both efficiency and educational quality.
Florida's 13-year-old tax-credit scholarship program is considered the nation's largest system of educational vouchers, but it differs from Friedman's proposal because the vouchers are not subsidized directly by taxpayers. Instead, the FTC gives dollar-for-dollar tax credits to corporations that donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations such as the Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students.
To the disadvantaged families who receive scholarships, there's not much difference between privately funded school choice and the tax-based system of the Friedman plan, but the distinction is critical to the legal issues raised in the lawsuit.
The Legal Question
FEA vice president Joanne McCall, the lead plaintiff in the case, said the Florida legislature is "clearly overstepping its bounds" with the scholarship program, according to the Tampa Bay Times. She cites Florida's constitution, which requires a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools."
McCall claims the state has failed in its constitutional obligation and, rather than addressing the problem directly, has unconstitutionally allowed a parallel education system to drain public schools of tax money.
Circuit Judge George Reynolds III disagrees. He ruled last year that the FEA and other plaintiffs have no legal standing to bring the case against the FTC because the program is funded privately, not with competing tax dollars.
The plaintiffs have appealed the decision, which is why King and thousands of others marched through Tallahassee chanting, "DROP THE SUIT!" — the slogan also seen online (#DropTheSuit) and in large block letters on the brightly colored tee shirts of many at the rally.
Winners and Losers
A higher court will settle the constitutional question, but both sides claim that the issue is about much more than a legal technicality. To the parents who fear losing their scholarships, the lawsuit is an attack on their children's futures. But McCall says of the scholarship program and its supporters, "We believe they're harming students all across the state."
But how exactly is school choice hurting Florida students?
If the FEA's contention is that the FTC tax credits reduce the state's overall revenues and thereby the financial resources available to public education, then all tax-deductible charities are suspect.
But the real threat to public school funding comes from any student leaving the system for any reason: state funding is tied to student enrollment, so losing students to private schools, for whatever reason, means a loss of overall revenue (but not per-student revenue). If this is the FEA's problem with the FTC program, then their real target is not just tax-credit scholarships but all private schools that threaten the state's monopoly on education.
The perennial concern for critics of school choice is that private school vouchers and scholarships will create a "brain drain" from the public school system, drawing the best students and the most involved families away from government-funded schools, diminishing community monitoring of local schools and reducing the efforts that teachers, administrators, and the remaining parents will put into those schools.
But extensive research vindicates Friedman's vision and shows that school choice programs like Florida's not only strengthen the academic performance and increase the graduation rates of participating students; they also improve the quality of the public schools most threatened by private competition.
Researchers Cassandra Hart and David Figlio examined the impact of the Florida program on the performance of students who remain in the public schools:
We examine whether students in schools that face a greater threat of losing students to private schools as a result of the introduction of tax-credit funded scholarships improve their test scores more than do students in schools that face less-pronounced threats.
We find that they do, and that this improvement occurs before any students have actually used a scholarship to switch schools. In other words, it occurs from the threat of competition alone. ("Does Competition Improve Public Schools?," emphasis added.)
They find that "the gains occur immediately, before any students leave the public schools with a scholarship. … And the gains appear to be much more pronounced in the schools most at risk to lose students."
Lindsey M. Burke, education policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, reviewed comparable studies from around the United States. They all yield similar results: school choice improves the academic performance of both the students who use such programs to change schools and those who remain in the public school system; parental involvement for voucher and scholarship students increases dramatically; graduation rates increase; public schools are pushed to better serve the remaining students, including those with special needs.
Burke concludes: "Instead of policies to increase spending on the public education system, states and local school districts would better serve students by empowering parents with control over their share of education funding."
The Real Agenda
King says teacher's unions and school choice advocates shouldn't be at odds. Both want the best education for the greatest number of children, including those whose families cannot afford the superior alternatives of private or home education. McCall implicitly agrees with that goal when she contends that competing alternatives to the system whose teachers she represents are "harming students all across the state," despite dozens of nationwide studies that conclude just the opposite.
McCall is wrong about education, but she is right to believe that teachers unions and choice advocates are fundamentally at odds. That difference is not based, however, in diverging educational philosophies. Those who opposed Friedman's proposals half a century ago were speculating about its effects. Today's opponents aren't: they face too much empirical evidence that such concerns are groundless.
School choice unquestionably improves the educations of all students where choice is available, but it also weakens the educational cartel of public schooling. Is it unreasonable to see the FEA's lawsuit as a rearguard action to protect the cartel's political privilege?