A lawsuit seeking more funding for public education has widened to challenge programs that help Florida parents send their children to private schools.
The original case aimed to put Florida’s education system on trial, arguing among other things that lawmakers had not adequately funded public schools, in violation of the state constitution.
An amended legal complaint filed late Friday afternoon adds new claims to the case, challenging the tax credit scholarship program for low-income students and the McKay Scholarship program for special-needs students.
First filed nearly five years ago, the case centers on a requirement in the state constitution that the Legislature must provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”
The revised lawsuit contends:
Many of the State’s reforms and programs, including the accountability system, changes to the graduation requirements, retention and promotion requirements, teacher evaluations, charter schools, and the FTCSP and the McKay Programs, have wasted millions of dollars without producing the desired effect of a high quality public school system, and are thus not efficient.
It also argues the state “is not providing a high quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity,” in violation of a related constitutional provision that led to the creation of Florida’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the state Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, which used state education funding to help pay private school tuition for children in poorly rated public schools, was unconstitutional.
The ruling in Bush v. Holmes hinged in part on the fact that the program used funds already set aside for education. Justices gave themselves room to rule differently on other private school choice programs, including those that cater to students with disabilities.
Neither McKay nor tax credit scholarships have faced a similar constitutional challenge until now. The revised lawsuit argues that by creating and expanding the two scholarship programs, “the Florida Legislature intended to divert public money from the education finance program and use this money instead to fund private school vouchers.”
A 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that thwarted a challenge of tax credit scholarships in Arizona drew a distinction between programs funded directly by the state and programs administered by private groups.
The Florida lawsuit, however, contends that allowing companies to give donations to scholarship organizations (including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog) in exchange for a corresponding reduction in their state taxes is “functionally the same as collecting the revenue and then making an expenditure of public funds.”
The plaintiffs in the case include public-school parents, students and groups that have been persistent critics of state education policy. They are represented by Southern Legal Counsel.
The case is set to be heard by a Leon County judge in the summer of 2015.