Mark Coats: Time to stop fighting school choice

Mark Coats

W.E.B. Dubois once said, “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires.”

I hear Dubois when I see the academic results for black students.

Year after year, the outcomes remain unbearable and unconscionable. More than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared an official end to separate-but-unequal schools, only 31 percent of black students in Miami-Dade can pass the 10th grade reading test they need to graduate. In Broward, it’s 34 percent.

To get the full measure of this brutal math, add every other sad educational statistic for black children, then multiply by generations. A community forced to carry the burden of this wasted potential is doomed to “play with mighty fires.”

I also hear Dubois when I think about the legal battle over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

The scholarship is a firefighting tool. It is helping 90,000 students access schools that work for them, including 26,000 black students. Yet it has been singled out and attacked for no good reason, for simply for giving low-income and working-class parents the power to do what parents with money do all the time.

Last month, an appellate court in Tallahassee dismissed the lawsuit that the Florida teachers union, the NAACP, and others filed in 2014 to kill the program. This was a victory for our parents and communities, but the suit is not dead because the plaintiffs decided to ask the Florida Supreme Court to hear its appeal.

The move, though expected, is still profoundly disappointing. For thousands of parents, it means more waiting, more anxiety, more wondering if their children will be removed from schools they love and sent back to schools where success eluded them.

The scholarship is not a silver bullet. It’s but one more instrument for chipping away at poverty and pain, hopelessness and incarceration. But the program has been in existence for 15 years, and it has a worthy track record.

More than 1,600 private schools in Florida participate, 402 of them in Miami-Dade, 146 in Broward. Parents of means enroll their children into these schools all the time, without controversy. So why do low-income parents, who could not access them without the scholarships, face a monumental court battle and the threat of eviction? This makes no sense.

These scholarships change lives. Years of data inform us the students who use them were typically the lowest-income students in their public schools, with family incomes averaging $24,000, and the ones who struggled the most academically. But once in the schools of their parents’ choosing, they make solid progress.

This does not mean private schools are better. It means they can be different — and sometimes, that’s all it takes to reroute a child’s path toward success.

Despite what some of you have heard, the scholarship does not pit public schools against private schools, or force a false choice between the two. We must do all we can to bolster our public schools. At the same time, we must continue to empower low-income parents with options.

The 1st District Court of Appeal said, in no uncertain terms, the plaintiffs’ claims of financial harm to public schools were unfounded. Multiple studies by independent researchers have gone further, concluding the program doesn’t drain a single copper penny. In fact, it’s saving hundreds of millions of dollars that can be reinvested in public schools.

So why are we fighting?

To the teachers union and NAACP, I make a humble request based on Psalm 11:3. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

What we can do is sit down and reason together. The scholarships are not the enemy. Neither are the parents and students who use them, or the schools and teachers that welcome them.

Let’s fight the fires together, and extinguish them once and for all.


Mark Coats is pastor of Grace of God Baptist Church in Miami, which is affiliated with Grace Christian Preparatory School.


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