The Florida Court system handed another victory to Florida’s largest voucher program on Tuesday, dismissing a lawsuit which alleges the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program is unconstitutional.
The 1st District Court of Appeal said the plaintiffs, which include the Florida Education Association and other groups, have not been harmed by the program, which provides “scholarships” for low-income students (who are mostly minorities) to attend private schools statewide. Many of the private schools are religious.
The FEA, the state’s largest teachers union which represents over 138,000 teachers statewide, was clearly upset over Monday’s ruling. The group has not determined whether it will appeal the ruling or not.
"Once again, the merits of this case aren't being argued," said FEA President Joanne McCall in a statement. "The court says that teachers and parents and other groups aren't allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers. The courts ruled a previous voucher scheme unconstitutional. Why won't they let teachers and parents challenge this one?"
The union of three judges ruled Tuesday the program doesn’t violate state law, a position which the plaintiffs have contended harms the state education system and funnels important, much-needed funding away from the public schools which need it the most. The groups also allege the voucher program uses taxpayer funds to create a “parallel” and “non-uniform” system of schools.
Much of the burden of proof rested with the plaintiffs making their case against the program, but the judges said in the ruling that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven how public school funding had decreased as a result of the voucher program.
“Despite arguing that public funds have been diverted from the public school system, [the plaintiffs] make no argument whatsoever that public school funding has actually declined,” wrote the judges.
Corporations fund the entire voucher program, which launched in Florida in 2001. Companies then receive a tax break in return for their participation.
Since its inception, the voucher program has become one of the largest tax credit scholarship programs in the country. Around 80,000 students currently participate in the Tax Credit Scholarship program, with the average scholarship equaling around $5,800.
Over 1,600 schools participate in the Tax Credit Scholarship program statewide.
The program hasn't been met without criticisms, however. The FEA re-filed the lawsuit in 2014.
Support for the court’s decision poured in statewide, with state lawmakers and scholarship advocates voicing their approval of the lawsuit’s dismissal.
“We call upon the plaintiffs to give priority to the 90,000 poor minority children in the program and drop the suit. It’s long past time for all of us who care so passionately about public education to put aside our differences and work together,” said Chairman of the Save Our Scholarships Coalition Bishop Victory Curry. “This sweeping ruling should compel us to focus on the real enemies – despair, hopelessness and the ravages of generational poverty.”
“The appellate court decision to dismiss the lawsuit against tax credit scholarships is a win for Florida children!” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lakeland, gave a thumbs up to the ruling as well.
“1st DCA decision tossing challenge to 70,000 poor kids' scholarships puts our kids & the Constitution [first],” he tweeted Tuesday.