In late August Florida’s largest teachers union filed suit against three popular parental choice programs benefitting students who are from low-income families, have disabilities, and would otherwise be assigned to failing public schools.
Late last month Chief Circuit Court Judge Charles Francis dismissed the lawsuit, protecting opportunities of some 60,000 students to attend the private school of their parents’ choice. As Watchdog.org’s William Patrick reports:
By expanding Florida’s low-income scholarship program and including a new program for disabled students, the FEA [Florida Education Association] said the Legislature improperly passed two items in one bill. The Florida Constitution contains a “single-subject” rule.
But the case was thrown out before the union’s argument could even be heard.
Notably, low-income scholarship awards do not use taxpayer money. Private donors, often corporations, receive tax credits for contributing to certified nonprofits charged with distributing scholarship funding.
A separate union lawsuit alleges the tax credit program is unconstitutional.
“This expansion of corporate vouchers comes at the expense of our underfunded public schools,” FEA Vice President Joanne McCall said in June when the union announced it was exploring legal options to challenge the scholarship expansion.
Tax credits are capped at $358 million this year. The cap will increase to $447 million next school year. Direct K-12 public school funding reached an all-time high in the 2014 Florida budget, at $20.3 billion.
In a statement following the judge’s ruling, incoming Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called on the FEA to put the needs of students ahead of union interests.
“The last thing these students and their parents need is a politically motivated legal attack from union bosses financed by the paychecks of hardworking Florida teachers” Gardiner said. …
Through the disabled students savings program, parents of students with disabilities…can receive 90 percent of the money the state would have spent on their education in the public system.
According to Gardiner, more than a 1,000 disabled students will be awarded scholarships by the end of the week.
It’s not certain whether the FEA will appeal, but the Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick and Andrew Coulson believe it’s likely they will—in spite of the fact that such action would be baseless. As Bedrick explains:
Florida’s school choice laws aren’t out of the woods just yet. A slew of anti-school choice activists, including the teachers union, state school boards association, and the state PTA, filed two separate legal challenges against the state’s school choice laws, alleging that they violate the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funds from being expended at religious schools, and the state’s “uniformity” clause. However, as Andrew J. Coulson recently explained, the lawsuits are without merit:
The first claim, that public monies are being spent on religious education, is simply false. In addition to the U.S. Supreme Court […] the Arizona Supreme Court, and Illinois district courts have also concluded that donations made under education tax credit programs are not public money. Black’s law dictionary agrees, as the Arizona court observed.
Coulson continues noting that the Florida constitution’s uniformity clause:
…does not stipulate that the uniform system of free public schools must be the sole means of providing for children’s education. On the contrary, it explicitly authorizes—in the very same sentence—such “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”
And that’s the point: education should meet the needs of individual students. If one education provider does not work for a given students, his or her parents should be free to find another that does. That freedom to choose is precisely what defenders of monopoly-system schooling don’t want.