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Teachers union, others sue over Fla. school voucher program

By JAMES L. ROSICA
Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau
Published: August 28, 2014 Updated: August 28, 2014 at 07:13 PM
Pastors, students and other school voucher proponents protest Thursday outside the Florida Education Association's Tallahassee headquarters. The FEA filed suit against the state's voucher system, saying it is unconstitutional. JAMES ROSICA/STAFF

TALLAHASSEE — The statewide teachers union Thursday filed suit against the state, saying Florida’s biggest private-school voucher program is unconstitutional.

The Florida Education Association and other groups sued state officials, including Gov. Rick Scott, and the education and revenue departments over the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Companies provide money for private-school scholarships for disadvantaged children, then get tax credits equal to their donations.

In a statement, Scott said the suit, “could have terrible consequences on the lives of Florida’s poorest children, who with the help of this program have a chance to escape poverty.”

The plaintiffs, including the NAACP’s Florida State Conference and the Florida School Boards Association, say the 13-year-old tax-credit scholarship program has led to a parallel system of education that is separate and unequal.

Proponents say the program offers opportunities for children who have been failed by public schools. About 69,000 students receive vouchers.

The program’s genesis was in Tampa, through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that administers the scholarships. And the Tampa Bay region has the largest concentration of scholarship recipients, with more than 5,600 students enrolled in 170 private schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties as of last school year.

Ron Meyer, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Florida Constitution requires the state to provide a quality education to all students through free public schools.

“We’re urging the court to find that this program, instead of meeting that constitutional mandate, diverts state revenue for the purpose of establishing an unregulated hodgepodge of schools that don’t have to meet standards and aren’t uniform,” he told reporters at a news conference at FEA’s Tallahassee headquarters. The case was filed in circuit court in Tallahassee.

Later, on the sidewalk in front of the building, students, teachers and pastors who support school vouchers protested the suit with call-and-response shouts: “What do we want?” “School choice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

The rally was organized by a group calling itself Florida Voices for Choices, which bused about 50 voucher students to downtown Tallahassee.

St. Petersburg’s Bethel Community Baptist Church has a K-12 school with 35 pupils, half of whom receive tax credit scholarships, according to the Rev. Manuel Sykes, the church’s pastor.

The school’s website says “all subjects are covered according to the requirements of the Florida Department of Education with qualified and certified instructors.”

“Our vision and our mission was to help those students who were struggling in the public school system,” said Sykes, who also is president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg branch.

“Ours has never been a competition against public education … but we do know some of our children do not excel” in public schools, he said. “So while some go to school with joy, others walk the gantlet every morning that they will have another day of failure.”

Sykes found himself on the opposite side of the debate from his NAACP colleague Dale Landry, the State Conference’s vice president, who attended the FEA news conference.

Landry said if more money isn’t funneled to public schools, “we may as well build prisons.”

“We need to reinvest in our public school system,” he said. “The schools were set up to fail so this other system could be set in place, and it’s all about money.”

Step Up for Students, the largest organization of its kind in the country, spends about $8 million on staff and operations each year, records show.

“This is certain to be a contentious lawsuit with emotions riding high on both sides,” Step Up spokesman Jon East said in an email. “I just want to remind you that this is a most unusual case in one very human respect: Because the plaintiffs waited 13 years to sue, there are 69,000 poor children whose parents are in a panic right now.”

Step Up also lobbies the Florida Legislature to keep the tax-scholarship program going and growing.

An omnibus education bill passed this year by state lawmakers expanded the voucher program. The FEA already is fighting that measure in a separate court action.

The Legislature’s incoming leaders blasted the latest suit.

“The decision to file this lawsuit is a self-serving attempt to obstruct Florida families’ ability to access choice,” said Senate President-designate Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, in a statement. “These groups claim to represent Florida students, but I’m confident their actions do not represent many of their members who are working hard to provide their constituents with educational options.”

Added House Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island: “I am shocked that the Florida School Boards Association, unions and others would challenge a parent’s ability to choose the right school for their child.”

The scholarship program “has given tens of thousands of Florida’s low-income children access to schools that best meet their needs,” Crisafulli said. “This popular program has proven important in preparing many of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our children for success. I hope they will reconsider and put the needs of children first.”

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO