- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Florida, which has the death penalty for convicted murderers, seems ready to impose an intellectual death penalty on poor and minority children who have just begun to escape the confines of their failing public schools.

A state appeals court ruled 2-1 that Gov. Jeb Bush’s visionary Opportunity Scholarship Program violates the state constitution’s ban on spending tax money on sectarian institutions. If the Florida Supreme Court agrees, more than 700 children who are learning and behaving better in private schools thanks to state subsidies will have to return to the failing public schools from which they were recently liberated.

Freedom of choice for abortion, but no freedom of choice for children already born as to where they might best be educated — this is a triumph of politics over common sense and a denial of children’s right to the best possible education.

Dissenting Judge Ricky Polston rightly said, “The Florida Constitution should not be construed in a manner that tips the scales of neutrality in favor of more restrictions and less free exercise of religion.” Gov. Bush wonders if noneducation programs like Medicare funding to hospitals with religious affiliations or private colleges could also be threatened.

About half of the students using the $4,241 vouchers spend them at religious schools and half at nonreligious private schools. But as part of the program, all the students would lose access to funds if the law is struck down.

Under the program, parents are allowed to pull their children from any public school if the school receives an “F” grade twice in four years, as determined by Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. That seems a reasonable standard if the objective is a better-educated child. That is not the primary objective of certain liberal activist groups like the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and the American Federation of Teachers, which all oppose vouchers.

It should be especially troubling that the NAACP opposes a program designed to elevate poor black students in failing schools. Martin Luther King Jr. believed a good education is essential to a good life. While he fought for school desegregation, today’s liberals fight to maintain segregation by income and class. You can bet no leaders of organizations opposing vouchers for the poor would let their own children or grandchildren spend a single day in failing public schools.

The children are not the main concern of activists. For them, politics and power are primary. The politicians take money and votes from teachers unions and their members. In exchange, politicians vote to maintain a monopoly they would not tolerate in almost any other area of state or national life.

They support more money for public schools, when record amounts are now spent with unsatisfactory results. If money and achievement are linked, kids should be smarter since we spend more than ever on education. Why did students learn more in previous generations with one-room schoolhouses and virtually no bureaucracy? The money now props up a top-heavy bureaucracy and little trickles down to benefit the kids.

The liberal politicians and education establishment know freedom of choice would reveal their position’s bankruptcy (already exposed by bad performance, especially among poor and minority students). Choice would elevate most “boats” but sink that of the politicos and educationists.

It is outrageous children are sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and that politicians and education elites would waste a child’s life for their own political ends.

If the Florida Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling, Gov. Bush should actively campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow vouchers. He could be accompanied by poor children in public appearances and in TV ads to drive home the point children are more important than politicians, judges and education elitists.

This is an issue Jeb Bush might use not only to benefit his state’s children, but himself if he wishes to follow his brother to the White House. “Let my people go” worked for Moses.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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