If there’s one thing liberals and conservatives in the Florida Legislature ought to be able to agree on, it’s the remarkable legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the Daytona School for Negro Girls that grew into what is today Bethune-Cookman University.
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Broward, wants to honor Bethune by having a statue of the legendary educator replace one of a Confederate general in the Florida section of Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Thurston has introduced legislation to help make this happen. And House and Senate leaders not only ought to help Thurston advance this idea, but they all ought to work together across party lines to create a new K-12 scholarship named for Bethune.
Why a Bethune Scholarship? Three compelling reasons come immediately to mind.
First, Florida students shouldn’t have to travel all the way to D.C. to see Bethune get her due. Yes, it would be great for the U.S. Capitol to have a statue of Bethune for school kids to see on class field trips. But it’d be even better for Bethune to be part of the everyday consciousness of Florida’s schools — which is what would likely happen if a new Bethune Scholarship were available to every interested K-12 student.
Second, Florida needs to remain a leader in education reform. And Arizona just catapulted over us by adopting a highly innovative “portable public education spending” policy (as The New York Times called it). Under this new “portable spending” policy, per-pupil funds are put into an education account that parents can use for a wide array of K-12 educational purposes, including tuition, books, tutoring, speech therapy, and online courses. Any unused monies can be rolled over to subsequent years — or saved for college! Imagine that.
Third, every Florida student ought to be able to attend a K-12 school like the one Bethune started (if they so want). Yes, I know Bethune ran a private school — and a faith-based one at that. And certainly no one should be compelled to attend (or to finance) a religious school. But neither should interested taxpayers be denied the opportunity to use their child’s per-pupil funds on the kind of faith-based education Bethune offered her students. And part of the beauty of “portable education spending” is that it gives every parent the freedom to make decisions about how best to spend their child’s per-pupil funds.
Will all of us like the education choices that other families make? Of course not. (Just think about how University of Florida alums react when they learn that their neighbors’ child is headed to Florida State University!) But living in a free society means that we need to affirm the right of other families to make decisions that we wouldn’t make ourselves.
Sen. Thurston should be commended for his interest in honoring Mary McLeod Bethune. And members from both parties not only ought to support a Bethune statue, but a universal Bethune scholarship as well.
Indeed, all Florida students need to learn about Bethune’s inspiring legacy. And that’s something about which liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree.
— Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute. Marshall served on the Board of Trustees at Bethune-Cookman University for many years.