Democrats and Teachers’ Union Fight Against Scholarships for Poor Floridians

by Paul Crookston

A minister in central Florida is striking back at the state’s teachers’ unions for their dogged attacks on a school tax-credit scholarship that affords tens of thousands of low-income families a choice of schools for their kids.

In an Orlando Sentinel column, Reverend R. B. Holmes said that it is “a matter of fundamental decency” to allow parents to choose where their kids are educated, and lambasted the Florida Education Association (FEA) for trying to force students back into failing public schools. Florida’s education system includes many school-choice options, yet the teachers’ union has targeted the tax-credit scholarship, which primarily assists families with low incomes. (The average participating household is only 4.4 percent above the poverty line, and minority and single-parent households make up a majority of participants.)

“Fundamental decency” is one thing. But Holmes’ column also makes an emphatic legal argument: The FEA has no standing to sue. To provide background, in 2015 a judge promptly dismissed the union’s suit, and organizations such as the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, and the Florida Parent-Teacher Association have subsequently withdrawn from it. That has not stopped the union, however, from pursuing the scurrilous lawsuit all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The complaint against the program is the ubiquitous claim that money is “drained” from public schools. It’s an especially preposterous argument in this case, since the tax-credit scholarships are actually funded by corporate contributions. The state government does not pay for scholarships to certain schools through the program, yet opponents still call them “vouchers” to create the sense that they are costing Floridians money. The FEA also claims that since the tax-credit scholarships can go toward religious schools, the program violates the Florida Constitution’s separation of church and state.

In reality, the union doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Since the costs of the tax credits do not exceed the costs of educating a student in a public school, families who use these scholarships save the state money. And if the union were to win the case, it would create an untenably large influx of students back into failing public schools. (To take one example, Orange County would have to reabsorb about 9,000 students who currently use tax-credit scholarships, when the reason those students left in the first place was that the schools could not provide for them.) But cracks in the public-school monopoly reduce the power of teachers’ unions as they increase the power of families. So the FEA fights on.

Meanwhile, Holmes asks a question that should trouble the conscience of anyone who cares about improving the lives of low-income parents and their kids: “All these poor parents want is the power to do what families of means do every day — the power to find the best school for their children. Why would anybody deny them?” The answer, as it tends to be in such cases, is that the only thing that matters to the union is keeping power.

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