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Legal challenge takes aim at Florida's school voucher program

TALLAHASSEE — The statewide teachers union, school boards association and PTA filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of Florida's school voucher program.

The lawsuit contends that the voucher program, which provides private-school scholarships to low-income children, conflicts with the state's constitutional duty to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools."

"It diverts state revenue for the purpose of creating an unregulated hodgepodge of private schools," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association and the Florida School Boards Association.

The Florida Supreme Court cited the same clause in a 2006 decision striking down the state's first school voucher program.

In a statement, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is named as a defendant in the case, accused the union of playing politics.

"It is unconscionable that trial lawyers and unions have ganged up to use these children as a political ploy," Scott said. "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."

The program under scrutiny is known as the tax credit scholarship program. It serves about 69,000 children with scholarships valued at up to $5,272.

Supporters say the program provides choices for students who might not succeed in a traditional public school. But opponents argue the dollars would be better spent within the public school system, where there is more oversight and accountability. They also take issue with the fact that many of the private schools participating in the program are faith-based.

The Florida Education Association has long been questioning whether the program is constitutional.

Union leaders challenged the original voucher program in 1999, saying it conflicted with the state's constitutionally mandated duty to provide a free and uniform public school system by pumping state dollars into private schools. The state Supreme Court agreed.

The tax credit scholarship program debuted in 2002 with a different funding structure.

Unlike the original program, which was funded directly through the state education budget, the tax credit scholarships are funded by corporations. Businesses that contribute to the program receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

But Meyer, the attorney for the teachers union and the school boards association, said he doubted the new program was different enough to withstand a constitutional challenge.

"It is nonetheless state money that is being used," he said.

School choice supporters were quick to criticize the lawsuit. A half dozen gave their opinions before the suit was even filed.

State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand said he believed the Florida School Boards Association was acting without consideration for children with limited financial resources.

"This is surprising and disheartening, and I call on them to rethink their position and withdraw the lawsuit," he said.

Said Patricia Levesque, of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education: "If these organizations sat down and talked to the families benefiting from this hugely popular program, I think they'd be humbled and embarrassed by their actions."

The union has another lawsuit pending that involves the voucher program.

In July, union leaders filed a challenge to a 2014 law that both expanded the tax credit scholarship program and created new state-funded scholarships for children with special needs.

That suit takes issue with the way the bill became law — not the programs themselves.

Legal challenge takes aim at Florida's school voucher program 08/28/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014 4:08pm]

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