Senator declines award from group suing to stop tax credit scholarships

The group that represents Florida’s school boards had planned to recognize the chairman of the state Senate’s education committee as its “Legislator of the Year.”

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

But after the Florida School Boards Association joined a lawsuit challenging tax credit scholarships for low-income families, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, announced he has decided to decline the award.

“It is now apparent to me that the Association’s stance on educating low income students and access to choice in education is too conflicting with my own,” he wrote Friday in a letter to Wayne Blanton, the association’s executive director. “It saddens me that the FSBA would take a position that looks to eliminate customization in education.”

Legg’s decision is another sign the lawsuit is creating a rift between top lawmakers and the groups bringing the suit. Both current and incoming legislative leaders began denouncing the case before it was filed.

As the Senate’s top lawmaker on education policy for the past two years, Legg has been known for working closely with school districts. He has often helped keep the peace between their associations and other advocates on issues from charter schools to accountability.

In his statement responding to the lawsuit Thursday, he indicated the lawsuit betrayed the spirit of cooperation that has generally marked the Senate’s approach to education.

“Over the years and in particular the last legislative session, I have worked, in good faith, with many that now wish to eliminate school choice for all,” he said. “It is apparent that these groups were disingenuous with their efforts and have put their political views over that of our students’ needs.”

In his letter to Blanton, Legg writes that he has a “sincere hope” the school boards association “will abandon this hostile view toward low income students and customization.”

“Please know having grown up in a very low income household, my position will always be to advocate for access, quality, and customization for all students, but especially for those who don’t have the resources to access a quality education,” he wrote.

The tax credit scholarship program helps low-income students afford private-school tuition. It is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, tax credit scholarships, testing and more

Lawsuits. Florida’s teachers union and other groups launch a legal attack on the 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program that serves nearly 70,000 students. Associated Press. Times/Herald. Scripps/TribunePalm Beach Post. Orlando Sentinel. News Service of Florida. WFSU. Education Week. Daytona Beach News-Journal. US News & World Report. Reuters. Creative Loafing. The same day, a tax credit scholarship program in News Hampshire survives a legal challenge. redefinED. Concord Monitor.

florida-roundup-logo-300x114Testing. Lee County’s district-wide “opt out” revolt against standardized testing creates legal uncertainty. Fort Myers News-Press. Naples Daly News (more here). Tampa Bay Times. Associated Press. Millions of dollars in state funding are at stake. Naples Daily News. It has educators talking. Tampa Bay Times. Naples Daily News. Columnists and local editorials pan the move in the Fort Myers News-Press and Naples Daily News. A Palm Beach Post columnist weighs in.

Discipline. The Florida Times-Union struggles to obtain records dealing with expulsion cases involving sexual assault and guns. A private school expels a student whose mother complains on Facebook. WFTS.

Budgets. The Marion school board beefs up spending on classroom supplies for teachers. Ocala Star-Banner.

Elections. Two Orange County School Board races are headed for recounts. Orlando Sentinel.

Early learning. Art and scence centers work with Central Florida preschoolers. Orlando Sentinel.

High School. A Pasco program helps students transition. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher conduct. A Manatee football coach retires instead of fighting an administrative complaint. Bradenton Herald.

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Nation’s largest private school choice program now under legal attack

The Florida teachers union and state school boards association made good on their threats Thursday, asking the courts to shut down a 13-year-old school choice scholarship program that is serving 67,000 of Florida’s most economically disadvantaged schoolchildren. As if to punctuate their fervor, union vice president Joanne McCall tweeted to her followers as school choice supporters gathered: “A hit dog will holler … we are hitting a nerve!”

Scholarship supporters crowd outside union headquarters Thursday, protesting the announcement of the lawsuit.

Scholarship supporters crowd outside union headquarters Thursday, protesting the announcement of the lawsuit.

The complaint – filed by the Florida Education Association, Florida School Boards Association, Florida PTA, Florida NAACP and League of Women Voters of Florida, and others – argues the program is unconstitutional because it funds education options outside the state’s traditional public school system, and because the funds in many cases help children attend religious schools. The groups announced their lawsuit at a morning press conference in FEA’s capital headquarters in Tallahassee.

Many of the legal arguments hinge on a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling which sidestepped the religious question. In Bush v. Holmes, the court shut down the state’s first voucher program, deciding it was unconstitutional for a program funded in the state budget to support children in a private K-12 education system outside the public schools.

The groups filing suit Thursday were greeted outside the teachers union headquarters by about 50 students from nearby private schools, as well as educators and religious leaders who support the scholarship program. (The rally was organized by a new group, Florida Voices for Choices.) Most were minorities, reflective of the fact that nearly 70 percent of the scholarship students are either black or Hispanic.

One of those in attendance was Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which supports a middle school that caters to many of those students. Independent studies of the program have repeatedly found that tax credit scholarship students are among the most academically and economically disadvantaged of the students in the public schools they leave behind.

Ward said the vast majority of Florida’s students will continue to attend public schools, but the scholarships have provided a “saving grace” to children who need a different environment to learn.

“We can’t leave them behind just because it’s the smaller percentage, or the under-privileged. We can’t say they’re not worthy of being given a chance, or an alternative,” he said, adding that when he heard about the lawsuit, “I was shocked. It makes me then think this thing must ether be politically driven, or just all about money.”

Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP and a member of the state NAACP’s executive board, was also on hand. He heads a private school that serves tax credit scholarship students.

“When a child needs help, every means should be brought about to help the child, and that’s what this is about for me,” said Sykes, who stressed he was speaking as an individual and not as an NAACP leader. “We’re not in competition with public education. Our mission is to augment it for those for whom it has not been successful.”

Dale Landry, one of the NAACP’s regional directors in Florida, said its statewide organization joined the lawsuit because it wants to bolster support for traditional public schools.

“The public school system has been set up to fail,” he said, saying children would benefit from more time in the classroom. “We need to go back and reinvest in our public school system.”

News of the lawsuit swirled statewide Wednesday, after redefinED broke news about its pending filing and noted that two FSBA leaders – the president and president-elect – were defeated at the polls Tuesday night in races where school choice organizations left their imprint. After the story, a chorus of state lawmakers, local school board members and school choice advocates condemned the suit and urged the FSBA to with draw it.

On Thursday, the suit drew another sharp rebuke – this time from Gov. Rick Scott, who called it “unconscionable.”

“Quite simply, this careless action 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,” he said in a written statement.

In a show of confidence in the face of protests and denunciations by elected officials, McCall, the FEA leader, responded with a saying she said she picked up when she taught in rural Sumter County.

Continue Reading →

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Tax credit scholarships survive challenge in New Hampshire

As the Florida teachers union and school boards association announced a lawsuit this morning against the Florida tax credit scholarship, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously upheld that state’s tax-credit scholarship program, arguing the plaintiffs had no standing.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sued to terminate the New Hampshire program. They argued the program violated the state’s Blaine Amendment, prohibiting aid to sectarian schools and institutions.

Since the scholarships are paid for by donations backed by an 85 percent tax credit, rather than direct state appropriations, the plaintiffs had to argue that tax credits were akin to a tax expenditure. It must be noted that the loss in revenue due to the tax credit is also offset by an equivalent reduction in expenditures toward K-12 education as students enroll in private schools.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011), defendants in New Hampshire argued the tax credits are not tax expenditures and, as such, the plaintiffs had no standing to file suit. They also argued the plaintiffs lacked standing since they could not demonstrate that any individual suffered any harm.

Although the New Hampshire Supreme Court did not touch on the Winn decision, it did agree the plaintiffs did not have standing.

The court could not find that the plaintiff’s rights had been “prejudiced or impaired as a result of the program’s implementation.” The court further held that “petitioners fail to identify any personal injury suffered” and that “there is no evidence that by granting tax credits to other businesses, the program alters the amount of taxes [a business] is or will be required to pay.”

Not even potential reductions in revenue to the state or to individual schools as a result of tax credit scholarships was enough to establish standing. Continue Reading →

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FSBA leader twists truth on tax credit scholarships

Blanton

Blanton

If truth is the first casualty of war, then Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton may have been suiting up back in June. His Capital Dateline interview then with Steve Wilkerson described tax credit scholarships for low-income students as a financial drain not only on public schools but on all state government services.

Blanton, a seasoned educator, knows better. So let’s assume the association’s planned lawsuit against the scholarship, to be announced today, was his motivation.

Blanton’s financial assertion is short enough to quote in full:

“We are not a big fan of those type of scholarships. There’re a couple of reasons. No. 1, it’s taking a substantial amount of money every year away from public schools. But the bigger issue, I think, is over the next two years those corporate scholarships are going to siphon off about 2 to 2 ½ billion dollars from the state. Now making my assumption earlier that we get 36 percent of that, for every $1 billion that would be $360 million that public schools do not get. But then there’s over $600 million that doesn’t come into the state at all. It doesn’t come in for child care, it doesn’t come in for health services, it doesn’t come in for the Division of Family Services and things of that nature, it doesn’t come in for corrections. Those dollars not coming into the state are not just detrimental to public schools, it’s detrimental to a lot of other services the state is trying to deliver and has a hard time getting those dollars to them now. So I think we’ve got to take a real close look at that in the big picture – not just education but how those dollars are disappearing from a lot of other entities.”

Readers should be aware that I’m the policy director for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that co-hosts this blog and helps administer the scholarship that Blanton calls into question. But his misstatements are at such odds with the fiscal reality that they are rebutted by basic state revenue reports and fiscal evaluations.

Let’s begin with the “siphon.” Under state law, the amount of tax credits that can be used toward contributions for the scholarship is capped every year. The Department of Revenue is responsible for overseeing the cap, and here is the link to its latest calculation. The maximum possible amount for scholarships in the next two years is in fact $805.1 million – not $2.5 billion. That’s one-third the amount that Blanton claimed.

Now let’s look at how the loss of those dollars is “detrimental” to all those public services, including schools. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, testing, school choice and more

Lawsuits. The statewide teachers union, school boards association and other groups are preparing to announce the first direct constitutional challenge to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Times/Herald. Sentinel School Zone. redefinED. florida-roundup-logo

Testing. In clear violation of state law, the Lee County school board votes to “opt out” of all state standardized testing. Fort Myers News-PressNaples Daily News. Collier schools roll out new end of course exams. Naples Daily News.

School choice. A Palm Beach school board member pushes for more choice options within the district, but meets resistance. Palm Beach Post.

Charter schools. The Northwest Florida Daily News visits a new, collegiate-themed charter high school.

English Language Learners. Gov. Rick Scott criticizes federal accountability rules for students learning English at an event in Miami. Miami Herald. Gradebook. He appears ready to challenge the standards for federal accountability waivers. StateImpact.

Common Core. The standards were not the election driver some expected. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Prayer. The Orange County school district’s decision not to allow chaplains at football games draws heat from a local pastor. Orlando Sentinel.

Elections. Recounts are coming in Hillsborough and Palm Beach school board races. Palm Beach Post. Tampa Tribune. A winning Indian River candidate faces residency allegations. Indian River Press Journal.

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Florida School Boards Association urged to drop school choice suit

A chorus of Florida lawmakers, education leaders and others began urging the Florida School Boards Association Wednesday to drop a lawsuit it plans to file against the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students.

Chartrand

Chartrand

The suit, which sources said could be filed as early as Thursday, could potentially limit school choice options for nearly 70,000 low-income parents, saddle school districts and taxpayers with hefty financial costs and entangle the nation’s largest school choice program in litigation for years.

“I believe in choice and in freedom especially for those children that have limited mobility and limited financial resources,” said Florida Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand in a written statement. “The Florida tax credit scholarships provide this freedom for our most underserved population to choose a school that best serves their needs.”

The FSBA “is acting without consideration for this population by filing a law suit against this program,” Chartrand continued. “This is surprising and disheartening, and I call on them to rethink their position and withdraw the lawsuit.”

Added Florida House Speaker-Designate Steve Crisafulli: “This proven, popular program is essential for preparing children for success in college and the workforce.  I hope School Board members will reconsider their actions and put the needs of children first.”

The FSBA board of directors voted June 11 to move forward with a suit challenging the constitutionality of the scholarship program, which the Legislature created in 2001.

FSBA Executive Director Wayne Blanton could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Juhan Mixon, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, which is supporting the suit, said it was in part spurred by the program’s rapid growth. Continue Reading →

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FL school boards set to sue nation’s largest school choice program

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, helps to administer the tax credit scholarship program in Florida. Tampa businessman John Kirtley is chairman of the Step Up board of directors and is also chairman of Florida Federation for Children and Florida Voices for Choices.

Karen Disney-Brombach

Karen Disney-Brombach

Diane Smith

Diane Smith

With the Florida School Boards Association on the cusp of filing suit against the state’s popular scholarship for low-income students, its president and president-elect were upset Tuesday in local elections that bore the imprint of school choice organizations.

Karen Disney-Brombach, a two-term Indian River School Board member who is the new FSBA president, was defeated by a former science teacher and political newcomer, Shawn Frost. Diane Smith, a two-term Volusia County School Board member who is the FSBA president-elect, was beaten by a physician’s assistant and political newcomer, Melody Johnson.

At least two choice organizations were involved in the races. Florida Voices for Choices, a new 501(c)(4) that organizes parents and supporters of all school options, spread word about the incumbents’ expressed opposition to many choice programs. The Florida Federation For Children, an electioneering organization tied to the American Federation For Children, issued a statement saying that it invested money in state school board races for the first time in its history. Its chairman, John Kirtley, said bluntly: “If the FSBA proceeds with the suit, FFC will be heavily invested in these races around the state for years to come.”

“Parents talked a lot about how they felt bullied by a school board association that, through the lawsuit, wants to take away their scholarships,” said Voices for Choices executive director Catherine Durkin Robinson, a former Step Up employee. “So we talked about what to do with bullies.”

Scripps Media reported today that Indian River County Tax Collector Carole Jean Jordan, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, sent out emails on Friday retracting her support of Disney-Brombach after learning that she voted to sue the scholarship program. “Disney-Brombach said her ties with the Florida School Board Association may have led to her loss,” wrote Colleen Wixon.

Gary Chartrand, chairman of the state Board of Education, also issued a statement today opposing a lawsuit. It said, in part, that FSBA “is acting without consideration for this population by filing a lawsuit against this program. This is surprising and disheartening, and I call on them to rethink their position and withdraw the lawsuit.”

At issue is a vote by the FSBA board of directors on June 11 to move forward with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarship program, which is now in its 13th year and is expected to serve 69,000 economically disadvantaged students. The action followed a presentation by FSBA attorney Ron Meyer, who also represents the Florida Education Association teacher union and filed a lawsuit last month challenging the process by which the Legislature enacted a bill this year expanding the scholarship and creating a new program for students with significant special needs.

Sources say the FSBA is planning to file the suit on Thursday. FSBA Executive Director Wayne Blanton could not be immediately reached for comment.

The reaction among parents and private school leaders has been swift. Continue Reading →

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