IMAGINE seeing a drowning child, pulling him to the safety of a boat and drying him off only to have someone else on the boat throw the child back into the savage sea. Such inconceivable cruelty is precisely what one judge has done in Florida: 53 children, mostly minorities, will soon be returned to the deadly waters of educational failure from which they were plucked at the start of this year by a program championed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The ruling by Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. in Tallahassee directly affects only a few dozen students who formerly attended two public elementary schools in Pensacola the only Florida schools officially labeled as failing so far. But it threatens the hopes of thousands of Florida public-school students who would otherwise become eligible for vouchers in a few months.
These children and their parents can still hope a higher court saves the program but some shameless and unexpected characters are lining up to make sure appellate efforts fail. Ironically, the historic movement to desegregate education was championed by the some of the same groups that now seek to return African-American schoolchildren to schools that would please the Topeka School Board the board in Brown v. Board of Education.
One such group is the NAACP now vigilantly opposed to vouchers and sheepishly waiting for its cue from ideological comrades on the issue of charter schools. Giants like Charles Hamilton Houston, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other legal warriors who battled against not only segregation, but educational mediocrity as well would hardly be proud of civil-rights organizations that today are publicly unwilling to take positions that will ever attack a problem they privately admit: the failure of the educational system for many African-American children.
Last year, Jeb Bush went to the mat against even Republican opposition to push through legislation to hold individual schools accountable for the success or failure of individual students. The Florida program lets parents withdraw their children from failed schools, and explore alternatives. And just like other programs that level the economic playing field Social Security, Pell Grants, the GI Bill this program empowers parents to chose either better public schools or private schools by allowing some of the money (not all, by a long stretch) to follow the child.
Working-class single mothers, struggling fathers working three jobs, great-grandmothers who are left as primary caregiver for their great-grandchildren: Thats the kind of people that this program enables to find schools that meet their needs. Nobody with a self-respecting democratic bone in his body could find fault with that. But many entrenched political interests nonetheless seek legal means to deny educational hope to needy people.
Theres nothing radical about accountability even in some quarters of the educational system. On a high-school basketball team, players are held accountable for the number of free throws they botch. If they miss enough free throws, they can be cut. But if, after a while, enough players continue to miss free throws, that is evidence of a bigger problem: Its probably the coach that needs to be fired.
Why cant that standard be employed outside of the gymnasium on a public-school system and a team of professional educators who keep missing free throws? When half of the children entering New York Citys schools in kindergarten arent expected to graduate 13 years later, the public-school system is missing free throws. But parents cant fire the monopolistic system that should be fired and everyone still has to pay the tab for the expensive tickets. We are sitting courtside watching too many of our kids go to pot while the anti-voucher forces slam-dunk the hopes of millions of parents and children.
Like many progressive policy makers on the left and right, I am not wedded to vouchers but I insist on good schools. I could care less what levers are used to lift our schools; what matters is that every child in this nation have a viable opportunity to reach the fullness of his or her potential.
And this judge has left a very viable opening for those of us who seek to reform the educational system by any means: Referring in his opinion to a 1998 amendment to the state constitution, he acknowledges that Floridas residents have made it clear they want an efficient, well-funded public-school system. And that is what they do not have. Given this reality and the pressing concerns of millions of parents across this nation, the time is approaching when like-minded parents must rise up and demand that their states meet such educational objectives by date certain.
If not, then the courts must be forced to offer remedies, which might include vouchers, to meet these constitutionally mandated objectives. At the same time, it might begin to be apparent that some of the same groups that seem like they are showering our children with love are in fact just pushing them back into the drowning waters of educational failure.