Florida's Teacher Union Says Scholarship Program Is Unconstitutional

Aug 29, 2014
Originally published on August 28, 2014 10:14 pm

When Florida first approved its private school tax credit scholarship program in 2001, Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer said education groups questioned the legality, but no one really objected to helping low-income students get out of low-performing schools.

But then the scholarship program started to grow. Lawmakers approved a law that automatically expanded the program each year. Then earlier this year lawmakers raised the income cap. Now, a family of four earning $62,000 can receive a partial scholarship.

The program enrolls about 69,000 kids with a top scholarship value of just under $5,300.

“There comes a time when there’s a tipping point that’s reached," Meyer said. "I think a lot of people turned a blind eye to the constitutional questions which were presented, even as this program was rolled out.”

The FEA, the Florida School Boards Association and others filed a lawsuit in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Leon County Tuesday. The suit argues that the private school scholarship program creates two, parallel education systems and violates the 2006 Bush v. Holmes decision.

That decision struck down Florida's original private school voucher program.

The suit also argues the program allows public money to benefit religious groups, a violation of the state constitution.

Doug Tuthill is with Step Up For Students, which oversees most of the tax credit scholarship program.

He says previous federal court decisions have upheld tax credit scholarship programs, including a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision Thursday.

"I think it's unfortunate that the entire education community doesn't sit down and figure this out," Tuthill said. He thought the suit stemmed from a contentious legislative session, where lawmakers expanded the program and raised income limits.

The union also filed a lawsuit challenging the expansion earlier this year.

School choice supporters protested outside the Florida Education Association press conference. Michelle Pacheco of Potter’s House Academy in Orlando said the program is needed.

“This is not a battle between who’s better, public or private," she said. "We are here defending the right of a parent to choose what school they can place their child in.”

Tuthill did not have a timetable on when the case might be heard. Previous education lawsuits have taken years to resolve.

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