In what is being called a “bumper crop” of litigation, parental choice opponents in Florida are taking aim at some of the country’s most popular and successful programs using claims that have been discredited. As Watchdog.org’s Mary C. Tillotson reports:
Students with special needs or from low-income families in Florida are seeing school options threatened by “a bumper crop of litigation,” says Joshua Dunn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The latest of three lawsuits threatening school choice in the Sunshine State was filed Aug. 28. If it is successful, 67,000 children from low-income families will be forced out of the schools they chose and back into the traditional public schools they had opted out of for so many years. …
Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program has been running for 13 years and serves tens of thousands of children. So it’s unusual that a lawsuit would come now, Dunn said.
The last time a lawsuit was successful in Florida was back in 2006 the state Supreme Court overturned the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which awarded vouchers to low-income students stuck in failing public schools. A “uniformity” provision in Florida’s constitution makes it illegal to provide better education options outside the public system using public funds. Opportunity Scholarship students continued attending the private schools of their parents' choice, however, thanks to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program.
In an odd twist, parental choice opponents did not also go after the McKay voucher scholarship program, which awards scholarships to special needs students to attend private schools—the country’s largest program providing scholarships to more than 28,000 children.
Until now, that is.
Two lawsuits in all have been filed by the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the PTA, the Florida Association of School Board Administrators, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.
One has been filed against Florida’s newly-enacted educational savings account program, called personalized learning scholarship accounts or PLSAs, that allows parents who do not prefer a public school option to deposit 90 percent of what the state would have spent to educate their children into PLSAs instead to purchase desired educational services. The second lawsuit has been filed against Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program because expansions to both of these programs contained in one bill violate the “single subject rule.”
Such procedural gimmicks are nothing new from parental choice opponents. In fact, Robert Chanin, former general counsel to the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, made it clear years ago that his union would:
…attack on any grounds. …Our objective is not to establish lofty principles of constitutional law or to advance the state of constitutional jurisprudence . . .We will continue to challenge voucher and other choice programs under state constitutions on whatever grounds are available to us from lofty principles to church, state separation to Mickey Mouse issues such as the single subject rule.
The third lawsuit, filed by an organization called Fund Education Now, insists public schools aren’t funded adequately, and that programs like the McKay and tax-credit scholarships drain money.
Thankfully, there is strong legal precedent against these claims. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by parental choice opponents against the country’s first tax-credit scholarship program in Arizona. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the plaintiffs’ allegation:
…assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence.
Earlier this year the Arizona Supreme Court refused to review a lower court’s decision upholding the state’s ESA program, also the country’s first such program, against claims that it aids private schools. The court rejected opponents’ reasoning since parents can use funds to pay for a variety of education-related expenses not just private school tuition, including online or virtual schools, home schools, tutors, testing fees, and any unused funds can be used for future college expenses like college.
If Arizona’s experience is any indication, Florida parents have good reason to hope that their children will continue to enjoy the wide variety of education options they have now—and opponents have good reason to prepare for more losses in court.