Thursday, January 05, 2006

Public Principles and Private Vouchers

"Education lies at the intersection of two sets of competing rights. The first is the right of parents to ... rear their children in the manner that they see fit. The second is the right of a democratic society to use the educational system as a means to reproduce its most essential political, economic, and social institutions through a common schooling experience."
-- Henry Levin, "The Economics of Educational Choice,"
Economics of Education Review (1991) at 137-158.

Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the result of an earlier 1st District Court of Appeals decision by declaring the Florida School Voucher program unconstitutional under the 1968 Florida State Constitution.

Sticks of Fire, St. Petersblog, and the earnest, esquiring law blogger Matt Conigliaro, author of Abstract Appeal, were among the first bloggers with the story. Conigliaro wrote:
A 5-2 majority held that the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] is unconstitutional because it diverts money to private schools, away from public schools, and also because the private schools eligible to receive OSP funds do not constitute a "uniform" school system. Both of these features, the court determined, violate article IX, section 1's requirement that the legislature provide for a uniform system of free public schools.
He also promises a full-bore legal analysis soon.

For the moment, it's enough to know that the key language at issue in the case of Bush v. Holmes is found in Art. IX, section 1 of the Florida Constitution:
The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools... and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.
Summarizing its 35-page majority opinion, the Court majority wrote:
[T]he OSP ... diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida’s children. This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not 'uniform' when compared with each other or the public system. Many standards imposed by law on the public schools are [under the OSP voucher system] inapplicable to the private schools receiving public monies. In sum, through the OSP the state is fostering plural, nonuniform systems of education in direct violation of the constitutional mandate for a uniform system of free public schools.
We're happy to leave the heavy-lifting legal analysis to Matt Conigliaro. Judging from the majority and dissenting opinions, it will involve such arcana as the doctrine of "expressio unius est exclusio alterius" and competing rules governing statutory construction -- detailed stuff only a lawyer could love, anyway.

Instead, it seems worthwhile to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. What the state supreme court seems to be telling us is that Article IX of the Florida Constitution embodies the same core values the Founding Fathers of our Nation subscribed to when they threw off the chains of royalist England.

It's a distinctly American view that universal "public education was needed to serve the public interest as a public good," in the words of Robert Maranto, et al., authors of School Choice In The Real World: Lessons from Arizona Charter Schools.
[S]elf-government and citizen education drove certain of the Founders' strong beliefs in universal education. If republican government in America was to survive and flourish, all future participants had to be prepared for fulfilling their obligations as citizens. Jefferson, possibly the most prominent advocate of universal education, was joined by John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Rush, and George Washington in supporting universal education at least at the primary level... .

The institution of universal public education would be hollow in the absence of financial support. The fear that not only individuals but also the nation would suffer politically and economically if people were denied schooling for financial reasons played a large part in the push for public support and public control of the nation's schooling, as did the nation's drive for egalitarianism.
For our Founding Fathers, just as for those who wrote and ratified the 1968 Florida Constitution, government funding of universal education was seen as a "public good" that furthers democracy and benefits society as a whole.

By contrast, the two dissenting justices in Florida, including Frank Bell of Pensacola, can be understood as saying, 'No, education is not a public good. It's a private benefit.' Under the Florida Constitution, as they would rather have it, it should be okay for the state legislature to use public tax money to create "a system of charter schools [with] the trappings of a private good," to quote once again from Maranto, et al. This, despite the reality that --
Government and the market are dissimilar ways of organizing human activities, because the polity and the market have different purposes, values, and operating principles. As a market-based education system, charter schools present education as a consumer good, with parents as consumers. The fragmentation of the school system, the weakening of the common school ethos, and explicit messages encouraging parents to shop around, all challenge views of education as a public good. In sum, the existence of charter schools could institutionalize education as a private good.
There you have it, in a non-legal way. Politically, sociologically, and economically a publicly funded private school voucher system raises a very fundamental issue: Ought we to regard universal education as a "public good" essential for sustaining our democratic society and values? Or, have we become so enamored of free market ideology that we should encourage competition as an organizing principle for every sphere of social life, even at risk of undermining the democratic principles and ideals on which our Nation, and the State Florida, are founded?


Florida blogger Can't Keep Quiet notes that the voucher plan struck down Thursday is only one of three such state programs. All of them have exempted private schools from teacher qualifications and accountability standards required of Florida public schools. "Basically, the vouchers allowed the private schools to get free money and to do nothing to prove their expense was valid."

As we said, Florida school vouchers amount to a private benefit, not a public good. Constitutional law aside, they are a terrible public policy idea.

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