Judge Tosses Out Florida Lawsuit on Private School Vouchers

A Florida judge has thrown out a lawsuit aimed at blocking the expansion of the state’s major private school voucher program.  The Associated Press reports that Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis decided that a Lee County teacher did not have a legal reason to file the suit.  The teacher’s lawsuit was backed by the Florida Education Association, the union that represents Florida teachers.

The judge did say that Tom Fasse, a Lee County social studies teacher, and the union could amend the suit, which did not target the $300 million program, Step Up for Students, that affected 60,000 families in the last school year.  He gave them 15 days to do so. The decision was based on the fact that the when the legislature broadened the program, they violated a requirement that a bill can only cover one subject at a time.

Another lawsuit was filed last month states that the existing program is not in keeping with the state’s constitution because it creates a parallel education system and directs tax money to religious institutions, since most of the vouchers are used for religious schools. The voucher program’s purpose was to offer private school enrollment to low-income families, says WFOR-TV.

The expansion of the voucher program was based on a law that created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, which also expanded access to the state’s tax credit scholarship program, along with a number of other education-related measures.

“I think under what you’re proposing, that exception would be the general rule, because almost every bill has some kind of spending effect to it, and I don’t think that’s what the courts have said,” he said to Ravindran before dismissing the case.

A group of parents of special needs students and who have been approved for the personal learning accounts has intervened to defend the law, according to Travis Pillow of RedefineEd.

“We are hopeful the Florida Education Association will take this opportunity to re-evaluate their case and recognize the harm continuing this lawsuit will cause students with unique abilities who have been awarded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts and the more than 60,000 recipients of Tax Credit Scholarships who are thriving in classrooms and other education programs across our state,” said incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando).

The leaders of the GOP passed a resolution opposing the lawsuit, saying that the Republicans think the education of children is more important than union battles and bureaucratic rumblings.  The vouchers amount to about $5,200 per student, writes Rhema Thompson of WJCT-TV.   Board member Jason Fischer says children with vouchers are getting a good education and cannot see why that should be taken away from them.  However, there were other opinions.

“I’ve heard nothing in terms of why we as a district should support your resolution,” said School Board Member Paula Wright. “I think it’s important that we realize that when we ran to be part of this table, we ran under the umbrella of public schools.”

The voucher debate has also boiled over into the religious arena.

“This is just a thinly veiled attempt to siphon taxpayer’s dollars to private religious schools,” said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group represented in the Florida lawsuit. “Public money should go to public schools. The courts should find this program unconstitutional, just as they did its predecessor.”

In 2006, opponents used the court system to get rid of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.  This model allowed students attending failing schools to receive vouchers to directly from the state in order to attend private schools.

The current lawsuit is at odds with the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is a program that gives businesses state tax credits when the business makes a contribution to nonprofit scholarship organizations, which, in turn, give students tuition vouchers to attend private schools.  This year the eligibility requirement was raised to $62,010 for a family of four beginning in 2016, according to the lawsuit.