Parents all over South Florida should know that because of a lawsuit going through the court system right now, they could lose something extremely precious – the right to choose where their children go to school.
The reason for this has been in the news, but I know many people still have not heard. What’s at stake is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which empowers low-income parents with the financial freedom to provide the best educational environment for their children.
The program serves 78,000 students statewide, including 30,000 in South Florida. Most of the students are minorities, and most of them were having academic difficulties in public schools. But thanks to the scholarship, they were able to get a fresh start in a private school and began living up to their potential.
Despite studies showing positive outcomes for our children, the teachers union filed a lawsuit in 2014 to take away the scholarship and parental choice. A judge ruled against them last year, saying their claims of harm to public schools were “speculative.” But the union decided to appeal and said it will fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. That’s why I urge all of you to be attentive and vigilant.
If this lawsuit wins, tens of thousands of our children could be sent back to the schools where they were struggling and classrooms are overcrowded. There are over 20,000 scholarship children in Dade County alone. Can you imagine the financial and operational disaster for the district if they all showed up at the doors of public schools?
Even worse, can you imagine the nightmare for parents? Not only would the scholarship program be gone, but the lawsuit could set a precedent that limits other choices that we as parents have to send our children to the schools that best meet their needs.
I’m a public school teacher in Miami-Dade and a union member. I’m also the parent of a tax credit scholarship student. So this lawsuit really hurts me. But instead of lashing out, I’m going to accentuate the positive by spelling out what this scholarship allows us as parents to do.
In a word, it gives us power. It allows us to find schools that are safe for our children. It allows us to find schools where we know the teachers are perfect for our children. It allows us to find schools that have smaller class sizes, and the right curriculum, and even the right faith-based atmosphere, if that is important to us. It allows us to shop around for the right school in the same way we shop around for the right car, the right doctor, the right house. It empowers us.
I am the proud child of Haitian immigrants, so I know how important getting an education is in achieving the American dream. I believe the Caribbean and other immigrant communities that are the life blood of South Florida believe this with all their hearts, too.
Don’t be fooled by the spin that’s in the air, even though you’ll hear it over and over again. The scholarship does not take away money from public schools, it does not steal away all the brightest children and it does not come without accountability. If you as a parent have the right to move your child from one school to another because you are not satisfied, is that not the ultimate in accountability?
No, what this is really about is what Martin Luther King III said when he spoke at the big rally in Tallahassee last month. He was addressing 10,000 people who came to support the tax credit scholarships, and he said this: “Ultimately, if the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice. Because this is about justice; this is about righteousness; this is about truth; this is about freedom: the freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”
Yes! This is about freedom. This is about opportunity. This is about leveling playing fields. Private schools should be available to everyone, not just the rich. Most importantly, this is about your right as a parent to have control over your child’s education, and everything that we know comes with a good education.
Please stay tuned to what’s going on with this lawsuit, and please get involved. You can find out more at www.saveourscholarships.com and www.flvoicesforchoices.org.
Marlene Desdunes is a teacher at Biscayne Elementary School and one of 15 parents who have intervened in court to fight the lawsuit against the tax credit scholarship program.