FL teachers union attack on poor, disabled student scholarships fails — for now


By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged students and many disabled school children can breathe a collective sigh of relief – for now.

DISMISSED: A state judge dismissed a teachers union backed lawsuit attacking scholarships for poor and disabled students to attend private schools.

A state judge threw out a teachers’ union-backed lawsuit Wednesday aimed at killing scholarship programs that afforded more than 60,000 kids the opportunity to attend private schools.

Chief Circuit Court Judge Charles Francis dismissed the lawsuit for lack of standing.

It’s unclear whether the Florida Education Association will appeal.

The FEA and other plaintiffs argued that state lawmakers did not follow proper procedure when passing an education bill earlier this year.

By expanding Florida’s low-income scholarship program and including a new program for disabled students, the FEA 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.

“We are hopeful the Florida Education Association will take this opportunity to re-evaluate their case and recognize the harm continuing this lawsuit will cause students with unique abilities who have been awarded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts and the more than 60,000 recipients of Tax Credit Scholarships who are thriving in classrooms and other education programs across our state.”

Through the disabled students savings program, parents of students with disabilities — Down Syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy, for example — 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.