Whose Civil Rights? Florida Parents, Pastors Fear NAACP-FEA Will Appeal Scholarship Ruling

Melissa Rego
Updated Jan. 18
In a 4-1 decision Wednesday, the Florida state Supreme Court declined to hear the case against the state's school voucher program, affirming the program's standing. The lawsuit had been dismissed before by two lower courts.
At 4 p.m. on a September Friday, Principal Melissa Rego still had students hanging out in her office.
“I have a phone call,” she says, chiding the group. “Out, out, chau!”

It’s not a bad office in which to hang out. There’s candy (though Rego says students don’t touch it when she’s not in the office). And it’s well-decorated with gifts from current and former students. On the desk are Marine bracelets and a glass llama from Peru. A clay anime girl that’s supposed to resemble Rego strikes a pose. In a corner, a handmade 3-D solar system spins.

But the reason La Progresiva Presbyterian School students probably have no qualms about lingering in the principal’s office when the weekend beckons is that it feels like home.

“She’s not just my principal — she knows me,” Rego says of the feeling she wants her students to have and the culture she tries to set in the school by learning all their names. Eight days into the school year, she already has a list of students she’s concerned about. “That’s what we really try to inculcate in these kids: I see you, and you can be seen.”

Many of Rego’s students came from schools in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood where they didn’t feel seen. Large classes, bullying, poor grades — those are some of the reasons they gave for switching to La Progresiva. Most can’t afford the $6,500-a-year tuition on their own. Instead, they receive money to attend the school through Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which gives low-income students up to $5,886 annually to attend private schools.

The program, run in part by Step Up for Students, receives donations from corporations that in turn get dollar-for-dollar tax credits. Now in its 15th year, the program reaches some 92,000 Florida students.

The scholarship is at the center of a contentious debate around school choice, splitting the community it predominantly serves: people of color. The Florida NAACP and the state teachers union have filed a lawsuit against the program, arguing that it takes money from public schools. Yet some black and Hispanic families say school choice is a civil right and that the wealth of your ZIP code— like the color of your skin — should not dictate the quality of your education.

Two courts dismissed the latest litigation, most recently on Aug. 16, and the plaintiffs now have just a few weeks to decide whether they will make another appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“Right now we have not made a decision,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. “We’re still studying and discussing the matter.”

The NAACP has historically supported labor groups like the teachers unions. Florida Branch President Adora Obi Nweze said that because not all children can attend a charter school or obtain a voucher, it is not a policy the group can support, according to Politico Florida.

Some self-described lifelong NAACP members strongly disagree.

“The NAACP is on the wrong side of history on this,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., a Tallahassee pastor and former president of that city’s NAACP chapter. He describes the nation’s most storied civil rights organization as “a part of who I am.”

Rego’s school enrolls the second-largest number of tax credit scholarship students in the state: 593. (The largest recipient is the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Educational Center, Inc., in Miami, with 641.) In Florida, 39 percent of tax credit scholarship recipients are Hispanic and 30 percent are black. Three percent identify as multiracial and 26 percent are white. The average household income of those using the scholarships is $24,075, 4.4 percent above the federal poverty level.

Schools like La Progresiva might not exist without the dollars these low-income students bring with them. While the scholarship doesn’t meet the full tuition, Rego says the school waives what families can’t pay, except for a $100 technology fee which parents and relatives can fundraise to cover.

All of the students are Hispanic, Rego said, and the majority live in the neighborhood. Many of them have parents who immigrated to the United States from Cuba, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic.

The K-12 school opened its U.S. location in 1971. In the mid-1990s, the demographics of Little Havana changed, as new families fleeing political strife in Latin America moved into the area and the more-established Cuban expatriates moved to the suburbs. Before enrollment dropped, the school had a population near 600. In 2008, it had 162 students.

“The scholarship came just in time,” Rego said.

Now the school population is back up to 605 students; 98 percent of them attend using the tax credit.

Rego attributes her students’ successes — she cites a 100 percent graduation rate and says all 20 graduates of the class of 2016 went on to college — to high expectations and a close-knit, family-like culture that’s hard to replicate at larger district schools.

But it’s a family with tough love. Rego gives students a few years to transition, but if they don’t maintain above a 2.0 GPA — a C average — she will send them back to their former schools.

Rego also understands the community she works in — she grew up in Little Havana and is a first-generation college student and Cuban-American. She expects many of her students to similarly be the first in their families to continue their education beyond high school.

If the tax credit scholarships were eliminated and La Progresiva were to close its doors after 45 years, Rego says, she won’t fret about herself or her staff. Many of them, she says, took a $10,000 to $15,000 pay cut to work at the private, religious school and could find better-paying jobs elsewhere.

“I can find a job anywhere,” she said. “The school is just a building. It’s the kids who I’m worried about.”

The right we are fighting for now

It was a sunny, clear day in Tallahassee on Jan. 19, 2016. Ten thousand people marched down Pensacola Street, making their way to the state Supreme Court. They wore neon yellow shirts pulled over sweatshirts, mittens, scarves and hats. The shirts read “#DropTheSuit” in large black letters. Some people linked arms; some waved signs.

This was the “Rally in Tally,” where school choice supporters arrived in buses from across Florida to march in support of the tax credit scholarship program.

Martin Luther King III — civil rights activist and eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr. — stood onstage in a long overcoat and scarf to address the crowds.

“This is about justice,” King said. “This is about freedom: the freedom to choose what’s best for your family and your child, most importantly.”

(The 74: MLK III Leads March in Support of Florida School Vouchers, Tapping Into Civil Rights Legacy)

Discussions surrounding school choice and civil rights have often been linked, but there’s a growing divide over whether the two further the same goal of equity and opportunity.

“It is a civil rights issue because you’re giving me limits on where I can get education from because of my address,” said parent and public schools teacher Marlene Desdunes. “In a way, it’s a backhanded slap on desegregation.”

The NAACP and Black Lives Matter both recently called for a moratorium on charter schools, arguing that what they call corporate control of schools leads to “unhealthy learning environments.” This prompted a Black Lives Matter leader in St. Paul, Minnesota, to step down from BLM. Rashad Anthony Turner, who has been a school choice advocate in Minnesota and led protests there against police shootings, said his support for charter schools and education reform put him at odds with the group.

(The 74: ‘The Movement’s Been Hijacked’: A Black Lives Matter Leader Quits Over Public School Platform)

The Florida Branch of the NAACP, a plaintiff in the tax credit lawsuit, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Obi Nweze, the president, told the Pensacola News Journal, “The NAACP has historically taken a position in support of public schools. We don’t support any effort to drain money from public schools. And while it [voucher program], in fact, does try to support the best form of education for students, research has not proven that.”

The group also filed a lawsuit in 1999 against the state’s original voucher program, a case in which the court ruled in its favor.

But many of the people the NAACP represents — including black parents and pastors — were unsettled that an organization that has historically supported them took a different road on school choice.

“It was certainly surprising because many black people have benefited from the work of the NAACP, and for years they’ve fought to ensure that they have political equality, educational equality and social equality,” said Jacqueline Cooper, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. “[Tax credit scholarships] is a program helping tens of thousands of kids access high-quality education that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

Wevlyn Graves, who has to pay only $100 a year to supplement her son Ezra’s scholarship tuition at a private school in Hernando County, said she voiced her frustration to her local NAACP branch president.

She views school choice as a civil rights issue because “our children have rights too,” she said. “And as parents, we have to fight for them. They’re less fortunate because they don’t have the right to choose or right to vote.”

One hundred black pastors signed a petition in May asking the NAACP to drop the suit. Some pastors said they’ve engaged in small but encouraging conversations with NAACP branch leaders. Others said they don’t feel as if their opinions would make a difference.

The Rev. H.K. Matthews, 88, who currently lives in Alabama, has been a vocal supporter of school choice in Florida and was recruited by Step Up for Students to travel the state promoting the scholarship program. He was also a prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s, marched at Selma, led sit-in protests at lunch counters and was arrested 35 times for his activism.

“My contention is, having been involved in the civil rights movement in the early ’60s, this tax credit program is a continuation of the civil rights movement because it gives people an opportunity to make a choice as to where their children or child might go to school and what school might be more beneficial to that family,” Matthews said.

Matthews remembers a time when his own school choice was drastically restricted. As a child in Snow Hill, Alabama, he said, he walked 13 miles to school with his grandmother, who was a schoolteacher. During those walks, he passed by schools he wasn’t allowed to attend and buses he wasn’t allowed to ride because he was black.

A number of pastors in Florida run churches affiliated with private schools that receive tax credit students.

Holmes Jr. leads Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, which operates Bethel Christian Academy (where 33 of the school’s 73 students use the scholarship). Holmes also started the C.K. Steele/ LeRoy Collins Community Charter Middle School that closed in 2014, he said, to focus on the Christian academy school.

He sees school choice options as critical for the parents in his congregation.

“If senators and presidents can send their kids to the best schools, then why not poor parents?” he said. “Education should not come down to ZIP code or income.”

The Rev. Mark Coats, the pastor of Grace of God Baptist Church in Miami, which is affiliated with Grace Christian Preparatory School, sees the NAACP’s stance on tax credits as misinformation about where tax credit dollars are coming from. He also describes himself as a lifelong NAACP member and said he’s spoken with people at NAACP headquarters concerning the scholarships; he hopes to continue that dialogue in the near future.

“The outrage is not so much against the NAACP,” he said. “My outrage is, why are we having an issue in 2016 with parents having an opportunity to have choice for their children? That’s a constitutional right.”

Pastors and parents who support the tax credits say that the choice is personal, often because they want smaller class sizes for students, better academics, diversity in the classrooms, different extracurriculars or an escape from bullying. And yet if they can’t afford to move out of a district with a failing school or pay for private school tuition, they’re left helpless.

Linzi Morris, who lives in the Apollo Beach neighborhood of Tampa, has six children, all of whom have been to public school as well as used tax credit scholarship dollars for private school at some time. The three eldest are in college, studying biology, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, she said.

Her youngest three attend Academy Prep and Tampa Catholic High School. While all her children attended public elementary school, Morris said, she wanted a level of academic rigor she didn’t see offered at her neighborhood middle and high schools.

Some tax credit supporters were hesitant to compare civil rights so directly with school choice, saying they recognized that people were beaten, arrested and even killed for asserting their right to vote and to receive equal access and treatment in restaurants, movie theaters and other public establishments.

“[For civil rights in the 1960s], there was so much more that the fight entailed,” Morris said. “This is the right we are fighting for [now]: the right to choose where we send our kids to school.”

Desdunes, the Miami public school teacher, is an active member of her union who sends two daughters to St. Mary’s Cathedral School, one of whom uses the tax credit scholarship, the other a related scholarship for students with disabilities. Desdunes wanted smaller class sizes for her children, Christian-based education and better access to teachers.

Desdunes currently works in the Exceptional Student Education Department at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. She says she witnesses public school teachers having many added responsibilities, while she sees private school teachers with more time to give to students.

Instead of trying to fight against tax credits, Desdunes said, she wishes the union would spend more time and money on augmenting pay raises and championing other causes that would make life better for the profession.

“No one tells us what doctors to choose; we choose doctors based on our own needs. No one tells us what clothes to wear or where we should worship; that’s a choice we have,” Desdunes said. “Where my child attends school is my choice. It shouldn’t be dictated to me by a court or entity.”

If parental choice is what resonates with people on both sides of the debate, the government’s role in that choice is what divides it.

“Choice is great,” union spokesman Pudlow said, but he adds that it’s overstepping to ask the taxpayers to fund something that is not held accountable in the same way public schools are.

Others don’t want to support religious institutions with tax-related money. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, past president of the board of trustees for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been the plaintiff in several court cases that oppose any form of taxpayer dollars flowing to religious institutions. He’s a current plaintiff representing Americans United in the tax credit lawsuit.

“I believe that choice is very important, but the government and we, the taxpayers, should not have to pay for their choice,” Shapiro said.

Being a taxpayer not enough

Florida’s tax credit scholarships have been challenged in court over the past two years, but they have been spared. Most recently, in August, a First District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a challenge against them. Both courts found that the plaintiffs, including the Florida teachers union and the NAACP, couldn’t prove they suffered legal injury and so couldn’t challenge it in court. The dispute over the legality of the scholarship program, the court said, should be resolved by the state legislature in Tallahassee.

The ruling pivoted on the plaintiffs’ legal standing rather than the constitutional merits of the program itself — a finding that frustrated a teachers union wanting to argue issues like accountability and funding.

A 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made a similar argument: In a 5-4 decision, the court argued that the plaintiffs — in this case, Arizona taxpayers — had no legal standing to say they had been hurt by the state’s tax credit scholarship program, mainly because being a “taxpayer” alone isn’t enough to claim injury at the hands of a government program.

Sixteen states have tax credit scholarship programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

(Read More: Inside Sen. McCain’s Fight to Correct a Catch-22 Holding Back Arizona’s Native American Students)

“Once again, the merits of this case aren’t being argued. The court says that teachers and parents and other groups aren’t allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a statement after the most recent ruling. “The courts ruled a previous voucher scheme unconstitutional. Why won’t they let teachers and parents challenge this one?”

McCall is referring to Florida’s old voucher program — the Opportunity Scholarship Program — which was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 in the Bush v. Holmes case. That program, created by the state’s former governor Jeb Bush, allowed students who were attending failing schools to use public funds directly disbursed by the state legislature to attend private schools.

The plaintiffs filed the latest legal challenge after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 850 in 2014, expanding the scholarship program by increasing the amount of dollars given and providing partial scholarships to families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

As the program grows, the union and other plaintiffs argue that public schools are being hurt, both from losing funding tied to enrollment and by reducing tax dollars that should go to the broader public — including public schools.

They argue that if a corporation has to pay $500 less in taxes because it donated to the scholarship fund, that leaves a $500 revenue hole that theoretically has to be filled by other taxpayer dollars. FEA spokesman Pudlow points out that it’s not fair that taxpayers can’t choose where their sales tax goes, yet corporations have the ability to direct their would-be taxes to benefit private schools.

Opponents also argue that if all the money corporations donated to scholarships for private schools were instead poured into public schools, the system might have a chance of being fixed.

Many tax credit supporters would like to see that, but they don’t trust in an immediate turnaround for their children.

“I do want the public school system to be better; however, I’m not willing to sacrifice my child in that process,” said Morris, the Tampa mother of six.

Proponents also say union arguments could be used to go after all state tax credits. Just because the money goes to schools that the teachers unions often consider their competition, that doesn’t make them more or less legal than other programs that receive tax breaks, such as credits that help create jobs in high-crime areas or are used to build affordable housing, supporters say.

The court didn’t find hard evidence that the scholarships took away money from the public schools.

“But whether any diminution of public school resources resulting from the Tax Credit Program will actually take place is speculative, as is any claim that any such diminution would result in reduced per-pupil spending or in any adverse impact on the quality of education,” the Circuit Court ruling said.

Test results and other factors

The academic results of students who use tax credit scholarships don’t change much, according to annual data from the Florida Department of Education. The 2014–15 report says tax credit students scored in the 47th national percentile in reading and the 46th national percentile in mathematics — scores that are similar to those in past years.

Typically students using the scholarships come from low-performing schools and account for the lowest performers in those schools. Students who return to their public schools remain on that bottom rung, the report says.

This helps explain why a 2011 report from Northwestern University researchers found that public schools that lost students because of tax credit scholarships saw score improvements. If the lowest-achieving students leave, overall test scores look better.

Aside from negligible or small academic improvements on either end, many argue that academic accountability can’t be monitored in these private schools, despite their receiving indirect tax funding.

While test scores are important, they’re not the only thing that should be considered when it comes to school quality, said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Aldis also served as director of Florida’s scholarship programs from 2005 to 2008. He points out that a better classroom environment, smaller class sizes and higher graduation rates are all factors that aren’t mentioned in the report.

“Allowing families to exercise that choice, and having evidence that there’s no negative impact, that’s a strong statement,” Aldis said.

Disclosures: Kate Stringer was a policy intern in the fall of 2015 at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s D.C. office. She did not work directly with Chad Aldis in the group’s Ohio office.

The American Federation of Children supports Florida’s tax credit scholarships and was an organizer of the Tallahassee march. The 74 Editor-in-Chief Campbell Brown sits on AFC’s board; she was not involved in the writing or editing of this story.

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