Some of Florida’s most influential black ministers took to the radio airwaves Tuesday to condemn a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the nation’s largest private school choice program.
Bishop Victor Curry, a powerful Miami pastor, devoted two hours of his Tuesday morning call-in radio show to rallying support for Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. He was joined by parents, students and education advocates, as well as fellow clergy, including Bishop C.E. Glover, pastor of Mount Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.
Glover helped found Mount Bethel Christian Academy, which serves students who rely on scholarships to cover tuition. He said he worried the loss of scholarships could uproot students who often struggled in the schools they left behind. He questioned why local elected officials would support the lawsuit, which was filed in August by the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups.
“Some of the very people who might vote against this thing are some of the very people that represent our community,” he said. “It hurts me to understand – to even think about – someone who knows what is happening in this system to not vote for this program.”
Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, told the radio audience that displacing so many students – the majority of whom are black or Hispanic – could also pose problems for school districts.
“Here’s my question to the Miami-Dade School Board: If this lawsuit succeeds in shutting down the scholarship program, where will you educate the 18,414 low-income students in this county who would be kicked out of their schools?” he asked. “How many new schools would you have to build, and where would you find that money to do so?”
Joanne McCall, a vice president of the Florida Education Association and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the Palm Beach Post that the groups behind the suit would not back down in the face of public pressure.
“We’re not going to waver,” McCall said, according to the newspaper’s Post on Politics blog. “We believe we’re right and the constitution supports us.”
The lawsuit argues tax credit scholarships violate Florida’s constitution. The state has opened its defense in the case by challenging whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue, arguing they can’t demonstrate they have been harmed because the program is backed by private tax-credited contributions and not direct government appropriations.
Curry leads the New Birth Baptist Church in Miami and is chancellor of the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy, which serves about 120 scholarship students. He was a quiet supporter of the program until the lawsuit was filed, spurring him to pen an op-ed critical of the suit for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
His radio show drew supportive phone calls from local parents and the mayor of Opa-Locka, a city in northern Miami-Dade County. Some grew emotional as they described the benefits of a different school for their children, and the uncertainty they now faced because of the lawsuit.
“You can’t tell me where my daughter or my son will do best. You don’t know them,” one woman said, referring to critics of the program. Opponents are trying to take away scholarships when the recipients finally “love love love school,” she continued. “It’s irritating.”
During the broadcast, Curry and his guests repeatedly stressed their support for public schools, and their contention that school choice wasn’t either-or. Curry noted he once worked in public schools as a teacher’s aide, and referenced a recent award given to him by the state teachers union.
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I can support … these scholarships and also support public education.”