Florida teachers union challenges school choice legislation in court

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Florida’s teachers union announced a lawsuit Wednesday aiming to block a new law that, among other things, expands eligibility for tax credit scholarships and creates the second-in-the-nation personal learning scholarship accounts program.

The suit doesn’t argue the programs themselves are unconstitutional. Like a recent challenge of Alabama’s tax credit scholarship program, it focuses on how the law was passed.

The six-page complaint filed in Leon County Circuit Court argues lawmakers violated the state’s “single-subject” rule by combining the school choice measures into a larger education bill that expanded collegiate high schools, created an “early warning system” for struggling middle school students, and grew incentives for schools to offer career education programs.

“It is an outrage that corporate voucher expansion was tacked into an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the final day of session,” Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald.

The lawsuit drew a sharp response from Patricia Levesque of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, who tried to put the focus on the students who would benefit from the new options.

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

That’s what at stake. But since the lawsuit itself is about the nuances of legislative procedure, here’s some background.

The single-subject rule. Florida’s constitution requires every law to “embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title.” The union’s legal complaint argues the various provisions of SB 850 “are not related to each other, except in the broad sense that all have something to do with education.”

The practice of combining multiple provisions into larger bills dealing with broad subjects like education is hardly unheard of. Last year’s Career and Professional Education Act, among other things, created an online university degree program, overhauled state high school graduation requirements, and created new financial incentives for K-12 courses that lead to industry certifications.

That’s often how big legislation comes together in negotiations between the House and Senate. Former Senate President and current Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, responded to his colleagues’ procedural concerns on the last day of the session by pointing out, “We’re a bicameral legislature, and we only control one piece of this puzzle.”

According to the News Service of Florida, Ron Meyer, the union’s attorney said Wednesday that  “log-rolling has always happened,” though it often goes unchallenged.

The legal argument. The lawsuit contends there is “no logical or natural connection” between all the provisions that made their way into SB 850. That phrase appears in a 1991 state Supreme Court ruling that found lawmakers violated the single-subject rule when they combined a workers compensation measure with one that dealt with international trade.

In 1999, the high court held “legislative history” can be a factor in single-subject challenges. It found provisions that “originated in three separate bills in the House of Representatives, none of which were passed” made their way into a Senate bill that violated the single-subject rule. In its complaint, the union notes that other attempts at creating personal learning accounts and new requirements for tax credit scholarships “failed to be enacted” on their own.

Every bill – and the often-messy process that leads to its creation – is different. And that’s what the case is likely going to be about.

What could come next? The lawsuit itself does not have immediate effect on the roll-out of the personal learning accounts, which is happening this week. The same goes for other programs, new or expanded. But what could happen if the lawsuit were to succeed?

State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is set to become Senate president after the November elections. He was among the chief supporters of the personal learning scholarship accounts for children with special needs. He has made it a priority not only to create new options for those children, but to steer more of them towards standard high school diplomas that can open doors to college or job-training programs.

As the Senate was debating SB 850, Gardiner said, “I can tell you, if something doesn’t happen and (the bill) doesn’t make it, Senate Bill 2 next year will be this issue.” In a statement today, he said: “The legislation we passed earlier this year is only the beginning. We will empower parents and children with unique abilities as long as I am in the process. The teacher’s union may have given up on these children, but I have not.”

The union, for its part, has thrown its lot in with Charlie Crist in the current governor’s race. Crist supported tax credit scholarships and other school choice programs as a Republican education commissioner and governor. According to the News Service, McCall said the lawsuit is not related to the union’s election stance, though it’s possible they see political winds shifting before next legislative session if Crist, now a Democrat, is successful in challenging Gov. Rick Scott in November.

Coverage elsewhere:

News Service of Florida

Associated Press

Orlando Sentinel

Times/Herald

Sunshine State News

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