Bill Murchison

Get this: There's a new principle in American education -- namely, that public schools are to be "uniformly" bad. Such is the rock-bottom meaning of that 5-2 Florida Supreme Court decision last week scuttling a public school voucher program.

You needn't sift for long the legal gobbledygook to figure out that the Florida decision cuts aspiring students off at the knees and rewards substandard performance by their teachers and administrators.

Florida's constitution requires that "free public schools" be, among other things, "uniform." Which, by public consensus, many surely are -- uniformly bad. Which is why the state created a voucher program in the first place -- so that victims of such oppressive uniformity could opt either for public schools or private ones, with the state paying the bill.

Under the program, 730 such students are being educated in private schools. The idea is that we'll drag 'em back to the dungeons next fall. Why (according to the court's reasoning) should these brats, trying to claw their way out of ignorance, be allowed to undermine the Florida public school system's proud reputation for, ah, insufficiency? A vast, thundering irony here is that the constitution, besides requiring uniformity in education, mandates schools of "high quality"!

A basic question here: What's the purpose of public schools? Developing and sharpening the intellectual faculties, one would suppose. From which it should follow that those who pay for the schools, i.e. taxpayers, should constantly goad the schools to higher levels of performance. I mean, am I wrong? High performance doesn't count? Tells against you, in fact, in constitutional terms?

Florida's chief justice, Barbara J. Pariente, objects, in the majority opinion, that private schools aren't "uniform" with the public schools partly because, being private, they don't have to follow state standards. Why, they don't even have to teach "the history of the Holocaust or the story of Hispanics' and women's contributions to the United States." Imagine it if you can -- schools of "high quality" emerging in such an intellectually deprived environment!

More to the point, shouldn't one count as an unalloyed blessing the absence of public school standards in private schools? If the public schools' standards were as high the privates', demand for vouchers would figure on the merest handful of political wish lists.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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