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Teachers union, school board association to challenge school voucher program

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

The suit will address several provisions in the state Constitution, including the requirement to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools," Florida School Boards Association legislative liaison Ruth Melton said.

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

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, saying union leaders would answer questions at a news conference scheduled for today in Tallahassee.

Other groups participating in the suit, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, also declined to comment.

But supporters of the voucher program were quick to express their opinions.

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."

Four Republican lawmakers, including incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner of Orlando and incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli of Merritt Island, also issued statements deriding the potential litigation.

The program under scrutiny is known as the tax credit scholarship program. It provides private-school scholarships to about 69,000 children from low-income families. The scholarships are 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. Opponents 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 questioned the program's constitutionality.

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

The current cap on tax credits is $358 million. It will rise to $447 million next year.

The program has grown in other ways. State lawmakers passed a law this year allowing children from families that earn up to $62,010 to receive partial scholarships. The same proposal created "personal learning scholarship accounts" for children with special needs to use for tuition, tutoring, educational materials and therapies.

Last month, the teachers union filed a legal challenge to the way that bill became law.

At the time, Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer said the union also had "grave concerns about the constitutionality of the tax credit (scholarship) program and the damage potentially being done in these unregulated, unaccountable schools."

The Florida School Boards Association was mulling similar issues.

John Kirtley, chairman of the nonprofit that runs both voucher programs, said he had anticipated legal action from the FSBA for about a month.

In response, his powerful political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, had helped unseat two school board members who serve on the Florida School Boards Association in Tuesday's primary, he said.

Kirtley threatened to do more.

"If the FSBA moves forward with this reckless suit, the Florida Federation for Children will actively serve the interests of parents and become involved in more school board races for years to come," he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

Teachers union, school board association to challenge school voucher program 08/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 10:40pm]
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