Florida Scholarship Program Survives Another Anti-Choice Lawsuit

Published February 6, 2015

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program scored another legal victory against one of the lawsuits filed by the state’s largest teachers union in an ongoing battle against the program. At the end of December, Circuit Chief Judge Charles Francis tossed out a suit challenging the expansion of the program, which created “personal learning scholarship accounts” for students with special needs. This lawsuit was a reworked version of a similar lawsuit dismissed earlier by a state court.

The suit, filed by Florida Education Association (FEA) member Tom Faasse, claimed the program violates state law by siphoning money away from traditional public schools. At presstime, the FEA had no plans to challenge this portion of the scholarship program again, but another lawsuit, challenging the program as a whole, is still in play.

Bill Mattox, a resident fellow at Florida’s James Madison Institute, said although the court dismissed one lawsuit, the fight over this school choice program will continue.

“The FEA has been attacking the tax credit scholarship program with two different lawsuits,” Mattox said. “The one the courts threw out [for a second time] in December was always believed to be a weaker case. The FEA has abandoned that case and has said it won’t try again on it. Regrettably, the FEA is continuing to pursue the other lawsuit.” The pending lawsuit is a constitutional case, whereas the one FEA abandoned was a legislative procedure case, he noted.

Draining Public Money?

The pending suit argues the program is unconstitutional. Opponents of the program cite two sections in the Florida Constitution in particular. Article I, Section 3, states, “no revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Article IX, Section 1, states, “adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”

For the current lawsuit to prevail, the FEA will have to prove the state’s tax credit scholarships drain public money. Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, says she doubts they will be successful because that is not how the program works.

The tax credit program began after the state Supreme Court case Bush v. Holmes in 2006, in which the court ruled the state could not fund vouchers with public money. Today, nearly 70,000 Florida students are enrolled in private schools through the program, which gives a tax deduction to businesses or individuals for donating to scholarship organizations.

“After 14 years of seeing the [positive] results, it’s even more shocking,” Levesque said. “They will continue to attack low-income students and parents and their efforts to find schools that best fit their children’s’ needs. It’s extremely disappointing.”

Chris Neal ([email protected]) writes from New York, New York.

Image by Chris Potter.