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Teachers union challenges last-minute voucher expansion

TAMPA — This fall, the number of low-income Florida children attending private schools through the state’s voucher program is set to expand. Through the same program, hundreds more children with disabilities can tap into their own new pool of public education money.

These changes, though, in a program that has long divided the education community, is under challenge from a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Tallahassee by the state’s largest teachers union.

The Florida Education Association complains in the suit that state lawmakers “log rolled” a number of education issues — including an expansion of the voucher program — into a single bill that passed in the waning hours of the spring legislative session.

The voucher expansion appeared dead in the Senate until winning surprise approval in the broader bill.

The suit calls Senate Bill 850 unconstitutional because of its many parts.

“This was a sneaky way for the legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed,” said union Vice President Joanne McCall. “It’s an outrage that the corporate voucher expansion was tacked on to an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the session’s final day.”

The House initially approved the simpler version of the bill 115-1 on April 30. Lawmakers were split along mostly party lines in the House and Senate once the 140-page amendment was added on the final day of session.

The amendments include efforts to reduce hazing and dropouts, as well changes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and creation of “personal learning scholarship accounts” program for students with disabilities.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law June 20.

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The Tax Credit Scholarship Program provides tax breaks to companies donating money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools.

The expansion was a victory for Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based organization that administered nearly 60,000 scholarships to low-income students last school year.

With the program entering its 13th year, 120,000 students are in some stage of completing an application for 2014-15 — 26,000 more than the 94,000 who started one last year, said Jon East, Step Up’s vice president for policy and public affairs.

“There are at least 120,000 low-income students out there who feel like they might want this,” East said. “It gives us a sense of demand.”

There is enough money to award 67,000 scholarships for the upcoming school year. Step Up has already processed that many, anticipating a typical drop-off of several thousand students.

Under the expansion in the new law, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship starting in 2016 — a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit. The value of each individual scholarship also will rise.

With the passage of SB 850 came a change whose reversal could affect a small number of the students who have received scholarships for the 2014-15 school year: Previously, middle and high school students had to first attend a public school before becoming eligible for a tax-credit scholarship. That’s not the case anymore.

Additionally, the personal learning account program would go away if the court sides with the Florida Education Association, East said. The teachers union is seeking a quick decision because the application period for personal learning scholarship accounts begins Friday.

Accounts worth roughly $10,000 each would be set up for 1,800 students with designated disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Parents could use that money for private school tuition, therapy, home educational materials, a prepaid college account or other purposes.

“It’s just a phenomenal opportunity,” said John Kurnik of Tampa, who hopes to open an account for his son John, who is home-schooled and has autism. “We haven’t had a whole lot of luck with services for John. The resources we have as home-school families aren’t that plentiful.”

John, who will be in the seventh-grade in the fall, could benefit from math tutoring.

“It’s all about getting the right services to the kids and helping them become the best they can be,” Kurnik said.

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The lawsuit, filed under the name of East Lee County High School social studies teacher Tom Faasse, was quickly criticized as “shameful” and a “new low” by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids,” foundation Chief Executive Officer Patricia Levesque said in a statement. “And sadly there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power.”

Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, criticized the lawsuit in a separate statement, saying, “It is unfortunate the hard-earned money our teachers contribute to the FEA is now being spent to fund litigation designed to limit educational opportunities for children across our state.”

McCall said after a news conference Wednesday that the union had been working toward the lawsuit since the bill was approved May 2 by the Legislature.

Union attorney Ron Meyer said rolling several pieces of unrelated legislation into a single package is prohibited the Florida Constitution, which requires each law to embrace a single subject that is “briefly expressed” in the title.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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