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  1. Education

Judge deals blow to opponents of tax credit scholarship program

Published May 19, 2015

Opponents of a controversial program that directs would-be tax dollars to private schools suffered a setback Monday as a Leon County judge threw out a legal challenge to its constitutionality.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds III ruled that the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association and other plaintiffs had no legal standing to bring the case against the nation's largest private school choice program. His rationale: The way the program is funded, often referred to as a voucher system, doesn't use government vouchers at all.

Rather, Reynolds stated, the multimillion-dollar program gets its income from corporations that receive tax credits for giving money to an outside organization that provides scholarships to lower-income students. Those students — about 70,000 of them and growing — then attend private schools, most of them religious.

In other words, it's not state money.

"In this case, plaintiffs object to tax credits extended to third parties," the judge wrote. "Because plaintiffs do not challenge a program funded by legislative appropriations, plaintiffs do not have taxpayer standing to bring this action."

The decision mirrors outcomes in similar cases in Arizona and a handful of other states.

Supporters of the tax credit scholarship program, who mounted a high-profile campaign against the lawsuit, celebrated the ruling.

"The scholarship program has always been about giving more educational options to the children who need the most help, and not an attack on public schools," North Florida civil rights activist the Rev. H.K. Matthews said in statements released by Sachs Media Group for Save Our Scholarships.

Many backers argued that the lawsuit represented an unfair attack on school choice. They criticized the teachers union for its position and campaigned successfully against some leaders of the school boards association who sought re-election.

It was unclear whether Monday's ruling was the last word on the issue. The plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal.

"I don't think the final chapter and verse on legal standing has been determined yet," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer representing the FEA and others. "The plaintiffs feel they should get a ruling on the merits of the case and not simply be blocked at the courthouse door."

The crux of the issue to those challenging the scholarship program is one of constitutionality.

"We believe the Florida Legislature is clearly overstepping its bounds," said Joanne McCall, FEA vice president and lead plaintiff in the case.

She cited the state Constitution, which provides for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools," and contended the state has not met that mark. Instead, she said, the Legislature has allowed for a parallel system of education, draining public schools of needed financial resources.

"You have one system that is accountable to the public for the public dollars, and the other system that is clearly unaccountable to the taxpayers," McCall said. "We believe they're harming students all across the state."

Last fall, a different judge dismissed a separate, related case in which the teachers union argued that lawmakers inappropriately expanded the scholarship program.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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