The saga began in 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the first money-back guarantee in the history of public education: the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the program, whenever a public school receives two failing grades on Florida's academic performance standards, state educational officials come into the school with a remedial program, and the students are allowed to transfer to better performing public schools or to use a share of their public funds as full payment of private-school tuition.
Six years later, only 750 children are attending private schools using opportunity scholarships. But their footsteps have reverberated across the state, prompting failing public schools to reform. Steps taken by failing schools have included spending more money in the classroom and less on administration, hiring tutors for poor performing teachers, and providing year-round instruction to pupils.
Defenders of the status quo insist that such reforms were already under way. But a freedom of information request by the Institute for Justice from school districts that lifted schools off the failing list revealed ubiquitous reference to the dreaded V-word: Without such measures, school officials warned, we wind up with vouchers. The rules of economics, it seems, do not stop at the schoolhouse doors.
The results have been stunning. Even with tougher state standards, nearly half of Florida's public schools now earn "A" grades, while a similar percentage scored "C's" when the program started. A 2003 study by Jay Greene found that gains were most concentrated among schools under threat of vouchers.
Most remarkable has been minority student progress. While the percentage of white third-graders reading at or above grade level has increased to 78% from 70% in 2001, the percentage among Hispanic third-graders has climbed from 46% to 61%, and among blacks from 36% to 52%. Graduation rates for Hispanic students have increased from 52.8% before the program started to 64% today; and for black students from 48.7% to 57.3%. Minority schoolchildren are not making such academic strides anywhere else. . .
Should the Florida court strike down the program, it would spell a death sentence not only for opportunity scholarships, but for more than 10,000 scholarships used by disabled children to attend private schools, and for a host of other parental choice programs as well. Even more significant, it would doom the dramatic and unprecedented progress Florida has made in delivering high-quality educational opportunities.
The Florida Supreme Court may still be mad about the whole Bush v. Gore thing. This is serious