by Ron Matus and Travis Pillow
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.
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.
Nearly 70,000 low-income children will be served this year, up from 34,550 in 2010-11. More than 120,000 applications were started this year before Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, closed the application process July 15.
“A constitutional challenge is not something you take lightly,” Mixon said. “When (the program) was fairly small, I think people were willing to ignore it. But every year you keep expanding it and expanding it and there’s very little oversight.”
Mixon cited the 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that upended the state’s first private school voucher program.
“Our concern is that the Supreme Court in Bush v. Holmes said that you couldn’t have a dual school system funded by state government,” Mixon said, adding that he believes tax credit scholarships do “indirectly what the court said you couldn’t do directly.”
Details of the FSBA’s legal arguments have yet to emerge. But the coalition of groups supporting the suit will likely spread beyond the associations that represent school districts and their employees in Tallahassee.
Pat Drago, a board member of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the group would likely join the case. It already asked to join a separate, more wide-ranging lawsuit that challenges multiple aspects of the state’s education system, including funding for public schools.
“One is comprehensive. One is more focused. But they certainly are complementary, not in conflict,” she said of the ongoing and forthcoming lawsuits, which both include arguments against tax credit scholarships.
Drago noted that the national League of Women voters opposes private school vouchers, and said the group’s Florida members are becoming increasingly concerned about education. The group wants more funding for public schools and opposes “committing more and more resources to this parallel system, this parallel universe” of school choice programs. While she acknowledged the programs may save taxpayers money, she said the state constitution places the onus on lawmakers to focus on improving public schools.
In the meantime, news that the suit was imminent prompted key lawmakers to pan the move.
“Parents deserve better than this,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “They want what’s best for their kids and are lining up for this program. It is unconscionable that the FSBA would go this far to keep low-income families from accessing a better education.”
“I don’t think the FSBA’s actions represent the views of its entire membership but it doesn’t make this any less appalling,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, a member of three education committees in the House. “As a former public school leader, I know there are many people in the public school system fighting for students, but it is clear the FSBA is not one of them.”
A handful of local school board members have also chimed in.
“It’s all about the money,” said Escambia County School Board member Jeff Bergosh, offering his take on the FSBA’s motivation. “There are so many other things we should be focused on other than this. This is people just trying to maintain an empire.”
“These families have found something that works for their child,” said Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer. “Why on earth would we disrupt that?”