In a decision with profound national implications, the Florida Supreme Court recently took a stand on the side of public education, equality and democracy.
The court's 5-2 decision in early January declared unconstitutional a statewide voucher program that had taxpayers footing the bill for approximately 700 students attending private schools.
Across the country, vouchers have been a key element in the conservative strategy to privatize essential public institutions -- from schools to Social Security. The Florida decision should stall an already sputtering voucher movement.
The handful of voucher programs that exist -- in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and, new this year in Utah, a program for children with disabilities -- are the result of highly partisan legislative efforts led by Republicans. Every time vouchers have been put before voters, as was the case in California and Michigan in 2000, they have been resoundingly defeated.
The American people don't want to abandon our public schools. We just want them to work better. This is one reason why reforms such as smaller classes and better teachers have far more public support than vouchers do.
The Florida court noted that the voucher program "diverts public dollars into separate, private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools." Yet the state constitution, it ruled, clearly states that public education is a paramount responsibility of the state. The constitution also mandates free public schools that are "uniform" in nature.
The voucher program had funded private schools that, for example, had vastly different curriculums. These private schools were not required to hire certified teachers or do background checks. Parents, not the schools, were responsible for making sure students took state standardized tests.
The private schools got the public's money but didn't have to follow the same rules as public schools. By striking down this double standard, the Florida court stood firmly on the side of equality.
It also stood on the side of democracy.
The Florida court underscored the inherent link between democracy and education. The state's high court quoted from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be."
It is precisely this link between democracy and an informed citizenry that underlines the provision in all state constitutions for a system of free, public schools available to all children.
Public schools, for all their many faults, are a cornerstone of this country's democratic vision. If we care about all children, we need to reform -- not undermine -- our public schools. In Florida, the Supreme Court reinforced this principle loud and clear.
Hopefully, the rest of the country is listening.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist specializing in social policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.