Education: Uniform or Quality–Pick One

George Will provides another in what seems to be an endless supply of examples from the Florida Supreme Court affirming Antonin Scalia’s observation that judges are unqualified to decide moral issues. Recently, by a 5-2 margin, the court threw out the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) on the grounds that it

violates the stipulation, which voters put into the constitution in 1998, that the state shall provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

The court wielded the first adjective as a scythe to cut down the OSP. It argued that the word “uniform” means that the state must utilize only public schools in providing “high quality education.”

This even though many public schools are providing nothing of the sort; the public school that Octavia would have to attend were she not at Archbishop Curley has been rated a failing school for three consecutive years by the state. And even though the state can continue to utilize private schools for educating some disabled students. And even though, by the court’s reasoning, it is unconstitutional for the state to use the OSP to help Octavia receive a fine education at Archbishop Curley, the constitutional mandate about “high quality education” requires consigning her to a failing school. And even though there is no evidence that the drafters of the constitution’s language or the public that ratified it thought it meant what the Supreme Court now says it means — that in providing quality education, the state must enforce a public school monopoly on state funds. Actually, the legislature’s committee that drafted the “uniform” language rejected a proposal to prohibit vouchers.

Quite absurd, indeed. It seems particularly odd that a law specifically designed to enforce one aspect of a constitutional clause would be overruled because it might not meet another clause that, absent the law, would regardless be violated.

Public education in a given school district, much less an entire state, is never “uniform.” Schools in wealthier communities are going to outperform those in poorer communities almost without exception even if the per capita student spending is identical. Schools where the parents are successful and committed to education will have a huge advantage over those where that is not the case. The school enviroment will impact the children in that school even if they themselves come from excellent home enviroments, since they will be surrounded by students that are more prone to violence and other disciplinary issues, have lower quality peer-to-peer interactions, and likely have poorer teachers as well as the best naturally gravite to enviroments more conducive to learning.

Whether programs like OSP are the best way to address this question is not something I have strong views on, aside from a sense that the legislature and the parents are in a better position to make that judgment than a panel of lawyers.

Correction: I gathered from Will’s lack of mention of a timeframe for the decision that it had just happened. In fact, it was handed down in January.

Update: Florida Masochist and Ann Althouse commented on the decision when it first came out.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rob M says:

    The decision was not yesterday, in fact it was a few months ago. Currently the Florida Legislature is in session and there are a few bills that would deal with the ruling.

    in fact from yesterdays Palm Beach Post “On Jan. 5, the state high court used the legal theory expressio unius est exclusio alterius � a Latin phrase meaning that if a particular manner of doing something is expressly specified in law, then that by definition excludes all other ways of doing it.”

  2. M1EK says:

    My interpretation has been that “uniform” has more to do with the items in the curriculum than the level of quality. Why is it that everybody else assumes as you do?