Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Fanatics Founder in Florida

January 10, 2006

The right wing’s attempts to hijack government funding for their religion hit another road block last week when the Supreme Court of Florida declared a private school voucher program to be in violation of the state constitution. Coming on the heels of the Pennsylvania federal ruling recognizing “intelligent design” for the theological hokum it is, the Florida ruling is neither shocking nor revolutionary. This case is merely the latest in a long line declining to provide government aid to help accomplish the infinitely expansionist agenda of the “evangelical” Christian church.

The pivot of the Florida decision is a clause found right at the beginning of the education section, Article IX of the Florida Constitution, specifying that “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools….” The court cites a 1927 ruling that if a law defines a specific way of accomplishing its goals, it impliedly prohibits any other method. Because the constitution imposes a duty to educate the state’s citizens and specifies “free public schools” as the method of doing so, vouchers for private schools are right out.

Further, and to my mind more importantly, the court held that the requirement of uniformity was also violated. Private schools receiving voucher students weren’t required to meet the same standards as public schools. Because the government gives the money to the family of the voucher student instead of directly to the private school itself, the school is able to sidestep all the requirements aimed at “schools receiving public funds.” What does this add up to? Non-uniform schools.

Though the two dissenters argued that there was no evidence before the court that the schools were actually non-uniform, the five-member majority held that such evidence was unnecessary. To hold such regulations inapplicable in the private school context is impliedly to say that it is okay for private schools to deviate from them. This is like declaring that prohibitions on murder don’t apply to Tom, then, when someone complains, ruling that such regulations don’t need to apply to Tom because the plaintiff can’t show that Tom actually committed murder.

Interestingly, and I think rightly, the court did not rule on whether the part of the Florida constitution regarding separation of church and state had been violated. Diverting funds from a public project to a competing private project is definitely the main issue here; the use of tax money to subsidize private schools in areas of low school performance is completely counterproductive. The Florida scheme diverts money from the school district in which the child lives to fund a private education, so bad schools lose students, then funding, then get worse, then lose more students, and then more funding, ad inifinitum. What sense is there in just watching while underperforming schools slowly crash like this?

The theory is one of markets. Proponents of vouchers theorize that if a school is forced to pay for the private education of students who choose to leave, it will work harder to improve and keep its funding by keeping its students. This is great in a free market economy, where a profit motive would drive the owner of the school to enact more effective educational policies, try to attract students, and to find out what the students’ parents are looking for in an education for their kids. That’s not how it works when school is governmentally-mandated, though. Everyone is required to send their children to school; they have the option of doing it for free at a government institution or paying a private enterprise for specialized schooling. Either way, they have to go. Once the government starts giving public money to private schools, such schools are better funded than they would have been before and the public schools are proportionately poorer. Eventually, the public schools must be abandoned in favor of unaccountable, government-subsidized private schools.

State governor Jeb Bush said that he was “disappointed” with the ruling and remarked that “the public never benefits from the government protecting a monopoly.” First I’d like to point out that public schools are owned and operated by the government, and they certainly don’t turn a profit. Trust me, no one drives a Lamborghini because Ben Franklin Junior High has cornered the market on eighth grade diplomas in north Jacksonville. More importantly, though, there is a buttload of competition with public schools. My mother, for instance, worked at a private Montessori school that had several hundred students. Keep your eyes peeled on your next trip to the grocery store and you’ll see Our Lady of Really Bad Earaches Catholic School or Goldenleaf Military Academy. The assertion that there is somehow no choice regarding public schools evinces a failure to separate governmental and business endeavors.

We have provided for the support of our citizens by providing free necessities, and if you prefer a different variety from that which is provided, then you’re free to go about getting it for yourself. To say that those who are unwilling or unable to spend money on private schooling are somehow being mistreated by the government is like saying that those who are unwilling or unable to buy themselves caviar are being mistreated by the soup kitchen. Beggars can’t be choosers, so either try to brainwash your children on your own time or come up with the cash to let a professional do it for you, and quit trying to steal public funding for your crusade.

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