Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

Florida teachers union challenges voucher expansion bill

TALLAHASSEE — The state teachers union filed a challenge to a controversial education law Wednesday, saying it violates a constitutional requirement that each law be limited to a single subject.

Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 850 last month over loud objections from the union, parent groups, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

Among other things, the law expands Florida's school voucher program and creates new scholarships for children with profound disabilities. The scholarships, which can be used for private tutoring, educational materials and various types of therapies, are being rolled out this week.

The lawsuit from the Florida Education Association takes aim at the way SB 850 became law. Some of the bill's more contentious provisions, including the voucher expansion and the scholarship accounts, started out as stand-alone proposals that met resistance in the Legislature. They were combined into a sweeping education bill on the second-to-last day of the legislative session, giving lawmakers little time to review the proposal and citizens virtually no chance to weigh in.

In its final form, the 140-page bill also addressed career education, collegiate high schools, dropout prevention, hazing and middle-school reform.

"This was a sneaky way for the legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed," said Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall. "It is an outrage that corporate voucher expansion was tacked into an unrelated bill and slipped into law."

On Wednesday, incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who helped push the proposal through the upper chamber, said he stood by the constitutionality of the law and would support its defense.

"It is unfortunate the hard-earned money our teachers contribute to the FEA is now being spent to fund litigation designed to limit educational opportunities for children across our state," Gardiner said in a statement.

A spokesman for Scott, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment directly on the complaint.

"The governor was proud to sign this legislation that creates personal learning accounts for our special needs students where funding can be spent on critical services or rolled over so they can save for college," spokesman John Tupps said.

The school voucher program has been controversial since its debut in 2002. The program provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

It is funded by businesses, which receive a dollar-for-dollar corporate tax credit in exchange for their donation.

This year, lawmakers expanded the program by creating partial scholarships for children from higher-income families. They also raised the amount of the scholarship beginning in 2016-17.

The union, which has about 140,000 members, opposed the measure, saying it would take money from public schools. Leaders began mulling over a legal challenge as soon as the session ended, McCall said.

FEA attorney Ron Meyer said that the union had "grave concerns about the constitutionality of the tax credit (scholarship) program and the damage potentially being done in these unregulated, unaccountable schools."

In 2006, the state Supreme Court struck down a program that used public money to pay for so-called opportunity scholarships, saying it violated the Constitutional mandate to provide "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools." The tax credit scholarship program has not undergone a similar challenge.

But that lawsuit, Meyer said, was for a different day. Instead, the union decided to address the practice of "log rolling," or jamming unrelated policies into one legislative proposal.

Tom Faasse, a Lee County social studies teacher, is named as the plaintiff.

The challenge comes just days before an important milestone for the new law: On Friday, the application period for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program begins. The state has set aside $18.4 million for the scholarships. The average award will be about $10,000.

To qualify, a student must have autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, an intellectual disability or developmental delays. The program also requires either an "Individual Education Plan" from a school district or a formal diagnosis from a doctor. Home-schooled children can apply.

Already, almost 700 parents have already expressed interest, said Jon East of Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that manages the tax credit scholarship program and the scholarship program.

Patricia Levesque, CEO of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education and a supporter of the scholarships, said the lawsuit could stand in the way.

"The FEA's actions send a message that it is okay to overlook some students," Levesque said. "This is wrong. The parents and students waiting in line for these options deserve better."

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