by Marcus R. McCoy Jr.
Florida faith and community leaders took to the airways again this week to condemn a lawsuit that seeks to end the nation’s largest school choice program. And this time, they called out one of the groups backing it: the NAACP.
Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin, one of Florida’s most prominent pastors, dedicated both of his weekly radio broadcasts in Jacksonville on Tuesday to rally support for the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which was sued in August by the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association, Florida NAACP and other groups. The program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, and serves nearly 70,000 low-income students this year.
McLaughlin said he is “surprised and highly disappointed” by the NAACP’s position. More than two-thirds of scholarship recipients are black and Hispanic. Their average household income is 5 percent above poverty. And data shows that while they tended to be the students who struggled the most in public schools, they are now making solid gains in their new schools.
“I am adamant about this because our kids in Duval County are doing worse than almost all of the kids in every big district in the state of Florida,” McLaughlin said. “When you break the 10thgrade reading scores down into different demographic groups, what you’ll find is that while 67 percent of white students in Duval passed the 10th grade reading test, only 30 percent of black students did.”
“Now, I don’t think I need to explain to anybody what it means for our community, and our city and our society, when less than a third of our black students are able to pass a 10th grade reading test,” McLaughin continued. “I think you know what the implications are.”
The latest “radio rally” by Florida faith leaders is another sign that the political coalition supporting the school choice scholarship program is broader than media reports often suggest, and will continue to cause tensions within the Democratic Party. Like a similar event hosted by Miami Bishop Victor Curry in November, McLaughlin’s rally was joined by parents, educators and other faith leaders.
“When one cannot find a job because they did not receive the proper education, they resort to crime in the street,” said Garland Scott, pastor of Embassy Fellowship. “If you eliminate this choice for our children, you are making the choice for them to go to jail.”
“It’s critical that we reiterate who is doing this; it’s the school boards, it’s the NAACP,” said Kyle Harrison, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship.
The Jacksonville event was held a day after both sides in the lawsuit squared off at a key hearing in Tallahassee. Citing rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and two state supreme courts, lawyers for the state and the scholarship parents contend the plaintiffs have no standing to sue because the program is funded with corporate contributions donated in return for tax credits, not state funds. Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds asked both sides to submit draft orders within 10 days.
McLaughlin and his wife Narlene founded a private school, The Potter’s House Christian Academy, which serves students who rely on scholarships to cover tuition. Blenda Salter, the school’s administrator, said she has witnessed major improvements in the children who attend.
“When I look at these kids, I see myself because I grew up in a public school and came from a low-income family, so I know what it’s like not to have,” she said. “I see these children learning in an environment where they are thriving and don’t understand why these groups like the NAACP are trying the hinder our children.”
McLaughlin said his intent was not to speak ill of public education but to stress the importance, value and need for school choice, especially for those who cannot afford it.
“We need to be heard,” he said. “The tax credit scholarship is a benefit to our community, the indigent and the low-income. And we are going to fight for our children.”