Teachers Union Fails to Block Florida School Choice Program

Teachers unions across the U.S. for over two decades have opposed initiatives to expand choice for parents of public school children. In some states, opposition has fallen flat. On January 18, the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, lost its bid to win legal standing before the State Supreme Court in challenging a state tax credit scholarship program for low-income elementary and secondary students. The association, aided by a number of co-plaintiffs, had alleged that the nonprofit-managed program diverts funds from public schools to private schools and thus deprives students who remain in public schools of their right to receive a decent education. The ruling thus ends the union appeal process.

School choice has been prominent on the policy radar screen since the early 90s. It rests on the conviction that public school student performance, often substandard in low-income schools, can be boosted by providing private schooling and/or financing alternatives. If public schools cannot fulfill their mission, the argument goes, private schools can. While institutional arrangements cannot explain all or necessarily even most discrepancies in pupil outcomes, a change in venue can help. The creation of market-based alternatives, moreover, can improve the quality of public schools by forcing them to compete with private schools for enrollment. Alternatives include magnet schools, charter schools, education savings accounts, homeschooling, vouchers and tax credits. Voucher programs, typically established through state enabling legislation, have gotten special attention; such programs for years have operated in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. Teacher unions understandably don’t like these alternatives. When students transfer from area (union) public to (nonunion) private schools, enrollment in public schools falls, all other things held equal. This in turn reduces enrollment-based government aid to public schools and threatens employee salary/benefit packages. And the union representing employees, whether it is affiliated with the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers or (as in some cases) both, is likely to experience a decline in collective bargaining power. Union leaders know this. That is why they have made resistance to school choice a key component of their lobbying and political advocacy. Teacher unions are interest groups. As such, they can be expected to behave like interest groups.

In Florida, statewide school choice has been a reality for a decade and a half. Back in 2001, the legislature enacted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is means-tested; i.e., participation is limited to households with incomes below a certain level. Individual scholarships are not tied to school or student performance. Funded by private business donations, the program provides voucher-like scholarships to low-income, at-risk students throughout the state. Designated nonprofit organizations, especially the Jacksonville-based Step Up for Students, distribute the tax credits on a dollar-for-dollar basis; a $2,000 donation thus results in a $2,000 credit. Currently, nearly 100,000 of Florida’s 2.8 million elementary and secondary school pupils participate in the program. During the 2015-16 school year, the state disbursed $447 million in tax credits. The tax credit cap for the current academic year is $559,082,031, a figure set to rise to $698,852,539 for 2017-18. The Florida Education Association, opposed to the program from the start, has spent a lot of time in court lately trying to end it.

The effort has proven unsuccessful. In 2015, the FEA, along with co-plaintiffs including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed suit to invalidate the program in Leon County Circuit Court. By inducing students to leave public schools and enroll in private schools, the union argued, the program reduces the pool of funds otherwise available for public education. In so doing, it violates the state constitution. The court, unimpressed, refused to review the case. The plaintiffs then went to the First District Court of Appeals, but met with the same result. At that point, they took their case to the Florida Supreme Court. Here, too, the court denied the union standing. A gratified Step Up for Students president, Doug Tuthill, issued this statement: “The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children. We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall takes a much different view. In a media release she said: “We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures. This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program.” Despite the most recent court defeat, she vowed to work toward positive change. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of all of the students and fight programs that create injustice in the system,” remarked McCall. “We know why parents sometimes embrace these voucher schemes. They move their kids to these programs because they want smaller class size, safer environments and more sensible testing. That’s exactly what we want for public schools.”

The debate over school choice won’t be settled by any one court decision, whether at the federal or state level. And it is undeniable that some choice programs work better than others. Progress has occurred, and will continue to occur, but through trial and error. One can debate how school choice programs should be designed, especially with respect to church-state separation issues. Yet the Florida Supreme Court, like the lower courts, ruled correctly. The FEA wasn’t strong. The union was challenging the constitutionality of a program funded by private sources on the grounds that the money would have gone for K-12 public education. The counter-argument is that public schools have a mission to provide a thorough education. If evidence shows the money to be ineffective, alternative arrangements, such as tax credits, make sense.

There is a larger issue: Teachers unions, like all types of organizations, act in self-interest. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and their innumerable state and local affiliates, represent teachers and other employees of a great many public schools. That’s another way of saying they don’t represent students. And teacher unions over the past few decades often have behaved as monopolies, and politicized ones at that, acting contrarily to the best interests of students. If school choice offers a variety of ways to short-circuit some of that monopoly power, at least some are worth a try in Florida and elsewhere.