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Thousands Rally for Vouchers in Florida, Wisconsin

April 1, 2005

Crowds of concerned parents, students, and educators rallied in Tallahassee, Florida and Madison, Wisconsin in January and February to show support for defending and expanding school voucher programs that school choice opponents are trying to kill or

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Crowds of concerned parents, students, and educators rallied in Tallahassee, Florida and Madison, Wisconsin in January and February to show support for defending and expanding school voucher programs that school choice opponents are trying to kill or limit.

On January 24, parents and students who participate in publicly funded school choice programs gathered on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee to join a group of 18 diverse organizations to file "friend of the court" briefs urging the court to uphold the state's Opportunity Scholarship program. A lower court ruled against the program last year in response to a court challenge by school choice opponents.

On February 8, more than 2,000 parents, students, and teachers converged on the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison to urge legislators to lift a decade-old limit on student enrollment in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) that threatens to disrupt the program next year when participation is expected to surge beyond the cap.


Choice Called "Civil Right"

At the Tallahassee rally, Bishop Harold Ray of West Palm Beach's Redemptive Life Fellowship said school choice is fast becoming "the pre-eminent civil right of the 21st century."

Ray is a senior administrator with the Redemptive Life Academy, a private religious school serving participants in all three of Florida's K-12 school choice programs.

Across the state, almost 27,000 students now take advantage of the parental choice programs that state legislators have created over the past six years to provide parents with additional educational options:

  • more than 700 children use publicly funded Opportunity Scholarships to transfer from public schools that receive failing grades from the state;
  • almost 14,000 children with disabilities use publicly funded McKay scholarships to transfer from public schools that parents deem unsatisfactory; and
  • about 12,000 children attend private schools with the help of privately funded scholarships, with businesses providing the funds through a tax credit program.

In November, the state's 1st District Court of Appeals struck down the Opportunity Scholarship program, ruling it violated a provision in Florida's constitution barring public funds being used to aid any religious institution--even though the scholarship funds provide aid to parents, not to institutions, an approach the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be largely acceptable under the Constitution. (See "Appeals Court Strikes Down Florida Vouchers", School Reform News, January 2005.)


Decision Could Be Precedent

Although the Florida ruling dealt with only one program, parental choice advocates are concerned the court's interpretation of the state constitution puts other pre-K, K-12, and postsecondary scholarship programs at risk, too.

"I would not be able to go to the school of my choice or complete my dream without my scholarship," said college student Leah Cousart, who uses a state-funded Bright Futures Scholarship to attend Southeastern College, a private religious university in Lakeland, Florida.

Cousart's concerns were shared by parent Micelle Emery, who wants to send her daughter Aislinn and son Erid to Alpha Christian Academy in Winter Park, Florida.

"Parents know their children and need to be able to decide what's best for them in all areas, especially education," said Emery. "Why should I lose my right to send my children to a school that promotes the values, the level of education, and the safety that is important to me simply because that school is religious?"


Throng Cheers School Choice

At least 56 busloads of students, parents, educators and other supporters--totaling more than 2,000 people--rallied outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison at noon on February 8 to show support for lifting the MPCP enrollment cap.

"You must let Governor Doyle hear you," rally leader Howard Fuller told the crowd. Fuller, a former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent and now chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said the sight of thousands of students with varying ethnic and religious backgrounds was "exhilarating."

To enthusiastic applause and chants of "lift the cap," Fuller introduced the four legislators who sponsored the Senate and Assembly versions of the bill to raise the enrollment cap: Reps. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwasota) and Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), and Senators Alberta Darling (R- River Hills) and Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee).

Also well-received were Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) and Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo), who both expressed strong commitment to school choice.


Bill Passed State Senate

After the rally concluded with a cheer of "Governor Doyle, lift the cap," the group moved inside the Capitol building to thank other supportive legislators, filling up not only the Rotunda but also its three levels of balconies.

"We have never seen such an enormous show of support for parent choice," said Susan Mitchell, vice chair of the Alliance for Choices in Education. "Milwaukee parents and students know that the enrollment cap means slow death for a program they value highly."

Later in the afternoon, the Senate approved Assembly Bill 3, which would raise the current MPCP enrollment limit of 15,000 to 16,500, but for only one year. Since the bill was approved by the Assembly in January, it now goes to Gov. Jim Doyle (D), who vetoed two earlier bills to lift the cap.


George A. Clowes (clowesga@aol.com) is associate editor of School Reform News.


For more information ...

Information on the Opportunity Scholarship court case is available from the Web site of the Institute for Justice at http://www.ij.org.

Information on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and other school choice programs is available from the Web site of School Choice Wisconsin at http://www.schoolchoicewi.org.

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Education
Author
George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding managing editor of School Reform News between November 1996 and January 2005.
clowesga@aol.com