A coalition of groups including the state’s largest teachers union launched a legal assault Thursday on Florida’s de facto school-voucher program, saying the system violates the Legislature’s responsibility to provide every student with a quality education.
The lawsuit, announced at a press conference at the Florida Education Association’s headquarters in Tallahassee, is the latest phase of a battle between the union and lawmakers, who approved legislation this spring that would expand eligibility for the program and increase the value of scholarships given to participating students.
“We want to make sure that all students have a high quality public education and have access to that — no matter what their walk of life is, no matter what their capability is, no matter what their disability is,” said Joanne McCall, vice president of the FEA. “And public schools are the ones that provide that.”
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which could raise as much as $357.8 million this year, provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools.
Without the scholarship program, critics say, those tax dollars could be used to help fund public education. But supporters say the program provides better opportunities for low- or middle-income children trapped in failing public schools.
Expanding the program was a chief priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, during this spring’s legislative session. The FEA filed a separate lawsuit last month that challenged the Weatherford-backed legislation, saying it improperly “log rolled” a series of education issues into a single bill.
The expansion, the groups filing Thursday’s lawsuit said, helped prompt the legal challenge. Ron Meyer, an attorney for the groups, said while education advocates were willing to allow the program to go forward initially, “this has become an industry.”
“It’s a money-maker for scholarship funding organizations,” Meyer said. “And it’s a program that we think is a dereliction of the constitutional requirement (to provide public education).”
But former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the legislation creating the program and is still an influential figure in the state’s education debates, blasted the filing.
“This lawsuit is just the latest attack on parental choice by an entrenched education establishment more concerned about protecting the status quo than providing families the opportunities afforded by a great education,” Bush said in a statement issued by his Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The lawsuit draws on a 2006 ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that held the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional. That program was a purer version of a voucher system, using public money directly to fund private education for some students.
Amid a campaign where both candidates for governor are focusing on education, the lawsuit could also draw the Tax Credit Scholarship Program into election-year politics. It could put former Gov. Charlie Crist, running for his old job as a Democrat, in an awkward position. While he was a GOP governor, Crist backed vouchers, but the FEA is a critical piece of the Democratic base.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott wasted no time Thursday issuing a statement denouncing the legal challenge.
“It is unconscionable that trial lawyers and unions have ganged up to use these children as a political ploy,” Scott said. “Quite simply, this careless action could have terrible consequences on the lives of Florida’s poorest children, who with the help of this program have a chance to escape poverty.”
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida