Court rejects teachers' union appeal to challenge tax credit voucher program
Florida's teachers union struck out on its last-ditch effort to dismantle Florida's tax credit scholarship program Wednesday as the Florida Supreme Court rejected its appeal for legal standing to challenge the voucher-like program that finances students from low-performing schools to attend private schools.
The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs, including the NAACP, allege the scholarships are unconstitutional because the program diverts money that would otherwise go to the state’s accounts that fund public K-12 education. They also argue that the scholarship program pulls poor students out of the public school system in favor of private schools, diminishing funds to nearly 2.8 million children served by public schools.
The groups had previously been told by both the trial court and appeals court that it did not have legal standing to challenge the 15-year-old program adopted by the Legislature and Wednesday's rejection ends is their final appeal. Florida businesses earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits by donating to designated organizations -- primarily "Step Up for Students" -- which fund and distribute the scholarships.
The decision is a victory for supporters of the scholarship program and comes one year after the rally they held on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the lawsuit. Thousands of supporters gathered at the rally led by Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader.
The event was organized by the "Save Our Scholarships Coalition" and other school-choice groups to emphasize support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The groups have waged an expensive year-long television and social media marketing campaign that urged the teachers' union to "drop the suit."
Attorneys representing the state and the parents of scholarship recipients argued the union had no standing to sue because no scholarship money actually enters or leaves the state treasury. The scholarships are funded directly through private donations from businesses, which can then earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state for their contributions.
In 2015, Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III agreed with that explanation and rejected the teachers' lawsuit. The First District Court of Appeal agreed last year.
Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed the union could not challenge the law. Justice R. Fred Lewis wanted to allow them to have oral arguments. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and newly-appointed Justice Alan Lawson did not vote.
The program funds scholarships for more than 78,000 children to go to private, often religious, schools. Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students facilitates almost all of the money; $447 million was doled out this school year.
Proponents of the scholarship argue that if the teachers' union is successful in its lawsuit then the students would be "evicted" from private school because their families wouldn't be able to afford it anymore.
More than a quarter of the scholarship recipients -- almost 20,900 -- live in Miami-Dade County, and almost 70 percent of them are black or Hispanic.
The teachers union has been at war with the GOP-led Legislature for nearly two decades over the diversion of state funds into the voucher-like programs. In some of his first remarks as the new Florida House speaker last year, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, accused the teachers union of being "downright evil" for its legal challenge to the tax credit scholarship program.
Miami Herald staff reporter Kristen Clark contributed to this report.