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Parents Ask Judge To Disqualify Union From Challenging School Voucher Program

| February 9, 2015

Opportunity scholarships are a de-facto voucher program enabling students to attend private schools at public expense. (Robb Ebright)

Opportunity scholarships are a de-facto voucher program enabling students to attend private schools at public expense. (Krissy Venosdale)

Lawyers for the state and parents whose children use Florida’s de facto school-voucher program argued Monday that groups including the state’s largest teachers union don’t have the right to challenge the program in court.

Appearing before Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III, attorneys defending the program said the Florida Education Association and an array of other education groups can’t prove that they are directly harmed by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. That program provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools.

Those arguing against the scholarships say they siphon tax revenues away from the state and that the money could instead be used to increase funding for public schools. But lawyers for the state say legislators have ultimate control over the budget and could spend the revenues on something other than schools even if the scholarship program didn’t exist.

“This is speculation heaped on top of speculation, your honor,” said Blaine Winship, a lawyer for the state. “There’s no logical connection between allowing tax credits and diminishing education spending, especially on a per-pupil basis. This is entirely up to the Legislature, which is free to increase education spending, regardless of whether tax credits or exemptions are offered, and that is in fact what happened.”

Reynolds, who gave few signs of which way he was leaning on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, said he also had a problem with the theory of the FEA and others challenging the program.

“I agree that the nexus here is troublesome,” Reynolds said near the end of the hearing. “And that’s their problem, and that’s going to be their burden on this speculation that schools would do better if this program didn’t exist. You could do away with this program tomorrow morning and the budget for the school system might change not one iota.”

The groups opposed to the program have also relied on an exception to the rule on legal “standing” that allows taxpayers to challenge measures that violate limits on the Legislature’s spending and taxing powers. But Jay Lefkowitz, representing parents whose children use the scholarship program, said that provision is meant to allow taxpayers to challenge the state’s decision to spend their money on something.

“It’s very different when I as a taxpayer say, ‘My objection is that the government has not levied a tax on somebody else,’ ” Lefkowitz said. “I’m not directly harmed at all.”

But lawyers for those challenging the program said the state was oversimplifying their view of the case and why the scholarships harm their clients, noting that education funding is handed out to school districts based on the number of students that attend their schools.

“It’s because the state has set up a program that results in students leaving the public schools with these vouchers to go to private schools, and as a direct result of the students leaving the public schools, automatically, necessarily, under the Florida Education Finance Program funding formula, the funding for these public schools necessarily goes down,” said attorney John West.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the FEA, said the scholarship program isn’t much different from the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was held unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. That program was a purer version of a voucher system, using public money directly to fund private education for some students

“This (tax-credit scholarship) program is something that was simply put into place to do indirectly what the court said they can’t do directly,” Meyer said.

Reynolds did not indicate when he planned to rule on the motion, though he asked attorneys for both sides to give him their proposed orders within 10 days.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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5 Responses for “Parents Ask Judge To Disqualify Union From Challenging School Voucher Program”

  1. Lancer says:

    There should be no unions in the government sector. It’s a complete conflict of interest. Employees paid by taxPAYERS should be able to form a union to collectively bargain??? Completely ridiculous.

    Florida, thank God, is a right to work state and those principles should be enforced on the government side as well.

  2. Merrill Shapiro says:

    It’s too bad that the arguments and this article do not mention the fact that 82% of the money in this program goes to fund sectarian religious education!

    I became a plaintiff on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State because this program thumbs its nose at some core values of our country’s democracy as expressed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I of Florida’s Constitution. Four dollars out of every five spent by this program send children to religious schools. No mention here that Florida’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship forces 5 million of our state’s Catholics to pay for the religious education of thousands of Seventh Day Adventist students while Florida’s 1.8 million Baptists are paying for the religious education of scores of Muslim students. More than half-a-million Pentecostals in our Sunshine State are paying for the religious education of Episcopalians, while the state’s 600,000 Jews are supporting curricula that teach that “God does not hear the prayers of Jews.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, Lancer, working for the government should certainly curtail a person’s options for advocating for better and equitable working conditions for themselves. That sounds like the American Way, all right (not really, it sounds more like the Tea Party Way–“More for Me…None for THEM.”)

  4. Lancer says:

    First, property taxes fund education. That doesn’t end when you no longer have kids of school age. Therefore, if you pay property taxes and don’t wish to send your kids to government schools…then why shouldn’t you be given a voucher to attend a school of your choice…it is your tax dollars!

    Second…because there are already LAWS ON THE BOOKS regarding working conditions of employees. Further, you couldn’t address the fact that employees paid by taxPAYERS are able to collectively bargain against the taxPAYERS??? It’s a conflict of interest, pal. Therefore, you point is completely irrelevant.

    The teacher’s unions aren’t about the students…look at how the Wisconsin Teacher’s Unions abandoned their students in their failed plight against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker(whose faced special election and won that and re-election. He also balanced their budget and brought the state back from recession). They are only about keeping employees on their payrolls to fund their union and backing democrats politically.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well, Lancer, some of us don’t have children in school at all. Shouldn’t we have the right to ask for an exemption from paying any tax dollars at ALL for ANY schools (or some kind of refund?) Trying to make this issue out to be a “parent’s rights” issue is not going to get you anywhere. YOU are not the only ones paying in…and YOU should not be the only ones who have a final say in how it is paid out. If you want your child to attend a special school, unless there is documented need for one, go get an extra job and pay for whatever it is that your little heart desires, above and beyond…Especially since you have no regard at all for teachers or the public schools that will suffer because you want everything for nothing.

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