School tax-credit program survives teacher union's attempt to kill it

The failed challenge to state tax credit scholarships boosts school choice supporters.
Published January 18 2017
Updated January 19 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by the state's teachers union to dismantle a tax credit scholarship program that finances students from low-performing schools to attend private schools, scoring a decisive blow for supporters of school choice.

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 state coffers 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, curtailing 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 they did not have legal standing to challenge the program, which was adopted 15 years ago by the Legislature. Wednesday's rejection ends their 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 court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children," said Step Up's president, Doug Tuthill, in a statement on the organization's blog. "We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck."

FEA president Joanne McCall said her organization was frustrated.

"We're baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures," she said in a media release. "This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program."

She said the union and its supporters would find ways to continue to challenge what they consider the unconstitutional practice.

"We will continue to advocate on behalf of all of the students and fight programs that create injustice in the system," McCall said. "We know why parents sometimes embrace these voucher schemes. They move their kids to these programs because they want smaller class size, safer environments and less and more sensible testing. That's exactly what we want for public schools."

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 and rejected the teachers' lawsuit. The 1st District Court of Appeal then rejected the appeal last year.

In a one-page ruling, Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston all sided with the state and school choice advocates that the union did not have legal standing to 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 98,000 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 last school year.

Proponents of the scholarships argued that if the teachers union was successful in its lawsuit, 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-controlled Legislature for nearly two decades over the diversion of state funds into the voucherlike 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.

On Wednesday, Corcoran called the decision "a great victory for schoolchildren, parents and classroom teachers who want the best for their students."

In addition to the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida joined to challenge the law, as did several individuals, including state Sen. Geraldine Thompson and several Americans United for Separation of Church and State: Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the Rev. Harry Parrott Jr. and the Rev. Harold Brockus.

Joining the opposition were leaders of several black churches.

"I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law," said the Rev. R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. "We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low-income children in our state."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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