In a move that has put school-choice advocates on guard, Florida’s teachers’ union along with other groups filed a lawsuit aimed at ending one of the nation’s largest private school voucher programs.
The lawsuit, filed in Leon County, contends that a program that serves 60,000 students primarily from low-income families violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and by directing tax money to religious institutions.
Most of the schools that utilize the vouchers in the nearly $300 million program are religious.
Those involved in the lawsuit, including the Florida Education Association, the NAACP, and the groups that represent school boards and school associations, argued that the program was draining money away from existing public schools and the children who attend them.
“The public school system has been decimated,” said Dale Landry, citing cutbacks in the number of hours that children spend inside a classroom. “We need to go back and reinvest in our public school system.”
Backers of the popular program, as well as prominent Republicans who have supported its expansion, decried the lawsuit and its potential impact on the families who rely on it.
“It is unconscionable that trial lawyers and unions have ganged up to use these children as a political ploy,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement. “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.”
Speaking at a press conference in Tallahassee, Agudath Israel of Florida director Rabbi Moshe Matz said, “a lawsuit, filed just days before the beginning of the school year is nothing more than a shameful attempt to scare parents away from exercising their right to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs. This program should be lauded for giving educational opportunities to low-income children and expanded, not litigated.”
The program was created by former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush together with the state legislature after other state-sponsored attempts to award private school vouchers to low-income families were declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.
The Tax Credit Scholarship allows businesses to get credits on their state tax bills if they donate to an organization that gives private school vouchers to children in low-income families.
Since 2001, the Legislature has expanded the program several times, including this past year when it expanded the income eligibility standards. Starting in 2016, middle income families may also qualify.
This is the second lawsuit filed by the FEA this year that could impact the program. In July, the teacher’s union filed a separate lawsuit challenging the way the latest tax credit expansion became law during the session. It has not yet been heard in court.
On the same day that this suit was filed, the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld a nearly identical program in that state on technical grounds without dealing with the constitutional issues.
“Any lawsuit is a threat and a wakeup call, said A.D. Motzen, the Director of State Affairs for the Agudath Israel, in response to whether he felt the suit was a serious threat to the program. “It reminds parents and schools that we can’t take any legislated program for granted.”
“Ultimately, we don’t feel that the plaintiffs’ case has merit, nor do they have standing to raise the issue,” he continued. “Last week the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs in a similar case had no standing as they could not show they were harmed by the scholarship program.”
(With reporting by AP)