Special needs parents enter legal fray over Florida parental choice law

Travis Pillow
Special needs presser

John Kurnick explains why several parents of special needs children are intervening in a lawsuit over parental choice legislation.

The parents of six special needs students announced Thursday that they are intervening to defend a new Florida parental choice program from a lawsuit by the statewide teachers union.

At a press conference in Tallahassee, the parents said the state’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts would help them get services for children with conditions like autism and cerebral palsy.

The program was created by wide-ranging school choice legislation signed last month by Gov. Rick Scott. The union is challenging the law in court. The accounts would allow parents to use state funds to pay for a mix of therapies and education-related services.

John Kurnick, of Tampa, said parents are often forced to “triage” educational and therapeutic services for children like his twelve-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism and other disorders.

He and his wife, Mary, have chosen to educate their son at home because he struggles in a traditional classroom. The accounts, they said, would help him get more services recommended by his therapists, and help him reach his potential.

“The funds provided for (by the scholarship accounts) will do untold good. We’re convinced of this,” Kurnick said. “It will give families access to many key treatments and specialty items that are necessary to help that dream become a reality.”

The union sued to stop the new law earlier this month, the same week applications opened for the scholarship accounts. So far, parents have started nearly 1,800 applications.

The lawsuit contends the law violates the “single-subject” rule in the state constitution. In addition to creating the scholarship account program, the final version of SB 850 contained provisions that expanded collegiate high schools, created an “early warning system” for struggling middle school students, and placed new regulations for scholarship funding organizations like Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The union focused most of its ire on portions of the bill that expanded eligibility for tax credit scholarships. Ron Meyer, the FEA’s attorney, has said the special needs scholarship accounts could be a “collateral casualty” of the case. If the lawsuit succeeds, it could invalidate the entire law.

Throughout the spring legislative session, the union helped rally opposition to both the tax credit and scholarship account programs, as well as an effort to combine them into a single bill.

In a statement, FEA Vice President Joanne McCall said legislation creating the scholarship accounts “failed to pass” during the last week of the session, only to be revived on the last day.

“It’s ironic that the state wants to move students with disabilities to unaccountable private providers at the same time it is not properly funding the programs in public schools and districts are forced to reduce staffing for these students,” she said.

Clint Bolick is a vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that is helping the parents intervene in the case. In addition to defending parental choice programs in court cases around the country, it also helped develop the idea for education savings accounts, which were first enacted in Arizona.

Bolick said the parents who would benefit from Florida’s personal learning accounts, the second such program in the country, “cannot afford to be made a casualty of the teachers unions’ lawsuit.”

“There is a single subject for this bill,” he said. “That single subject is education, particularly for a variety of kids who have special needs or a variety of educational disadvantages. That is the unifying theme.”

Other coverage: Times/Herald Capital Bureau, WFSU.

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Parent and Teacher August 1, 2014 - 10:06 am

Instead of creating a false narrative against teachers, SUFS and these parents ought to direct their frustrations at the lawmakers who used highly questionable tactics to pass SB850.

I guess these parents and SUFS support unconstitutional laws.

Patrick R. Gibbons
Patrick R. Gibbons August 1, 2014 - 2:39 pm

False narrative? It was pretty clear from the start that the FEA opposed the PLSA. They said as much; the statements are all public record as the FEA actually stood up and testified against the bill in the state legislature.

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