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.

“We say, ‘a hit dog will holler,’ ” she said. “I have to say, the amount of media that has been generated by the former (House) speaker, the former (Senate) president, the incoming speaker, the incoming president, and we have a litany of folks outside that want to show their demonstration. If we’re sure we’re standing on good ground, I’m not sure what all the hoopla is about.”

Tax credit scholarships are funded by donations to private organizations, including Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog. Companies that support the program receive a reduction in their state tax liability.

This arrangement is thought to be on more solid legal ground than directly funded vouchers. News of the Florida lawsuit came as the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld a similar program that faced a similar legal challenge.

But Ron Meyer, who represented the plaintiffs in Bush v. Holmes, has argued it may still violate the state constitution, which calls for a “uniform” system of free public schools. A longtime legal adviser to the Florida Education Association, he is also lead attorney in the new case.

“Although the Scholarship Program relies on a different mechanism for channeling taxpayer funds to private schools, the use of ‘tax expenditures’ rather than direct appropriations to accomplish the same goal of funding private education cannot save the Scholarship Program from the constitutional flaws that doomed” the earlier voucher program, Meyer writes in the new complaint.

During the press conference announcing the suit, Meyer said the “education stakeholder community” may have been “willing to tolerate this program as an experiment.” But he said that calculus has changed with the growth of the program, which is expected to reach 69,000 students this year.

“The fact is this has become an industry,” he said. “It’s a money-maker for scholarship funding organizations and it’s a program that we think is in dereliction of the constitutional requirement. So it reached a tipping point.”

Ward, however, pointed out that private school choice programs cost less per student than public schools, meaning they can also benefit the public school system. And he worried the lawsuit sought to uproot thousands of students, including those he has seen thrive.

“When we take away that choice, when you know something is right for you, right for your child, it’s sad,” he said.

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

  1. Wayne August 28, 2014 at 4:25 pm #


    I do not have time to blog on your topic – I am focused upon Russia invading Ukraine.

    But, I thank you for picking up the banner to fight against the hateful bigotry of progressives in America.

    God bless you,


    • michelle September 4, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      we need to stop these law suits. America need people who are willing work together, not against each other. we have bigger fishes to fry. This is a program that work for kids otherwise who have been lock up. Stop the trivial non sense…… I wonder where our kids in this society get their examples from? Adults who are willing to threaten each other for any reason…….

  2. Nate August 29, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    I don’t understand how you can be so concerned about “international affairs” of Russia/ Ukrain when the domestic issues here in your back yard are much greater? IJS. By a vowel and ask for a clue.

    You must not have any kids in the current school system now?

    • Anonymous August 30, 2014 at 9:23 am #

      You meant “buy”. Ignorant.

      • Ron Matus September 5, 2014 at 6:56 am #

        Hi Nate, Anonymous & others. We appreciate all of you reading us and taking time to comment, but please keep it clean. There’s no need for insults and name calling.

  3. Parent and Teacher August 31, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    You must all hate the FL constitution which calls for a free and uniform system of public schools. This is a state created system of private education where a lot of kids are taught the false science of creationism at Bible schools through a program that siphons potential tax revenue from children in public schools. There is nothing uniform about public schools and kids on a state-created school voucher.

    • Patrick R. Gibbons
      Patrick R. Gibbons September 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

      Hi Parent and Teacher,

      The Florida Supreme Court did find a prohibition against using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools (even though the constitution does not actually explicitly say so) but it did not rule out the possibility of privately funded private scholarships (which is what the tax-credit scholarship program is).

      The FL Supreme Court also did (mysteriously) use an ahistorical definition of the phrase “uniform public schools” which once required uniformity of funding resources but now apparently means uniformity of regulations, curriculum, teacher training. Florida is currently the only state in the country to operate under this new definition but again, it only applies to schools funded directly by the state.

  4. Diane September 2, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    I have 3 children 29–24– 8, my older 2 did wonderful in Public School but…my 8 year old is falling through the PUBLIC SCHOOL cracks. I have heard this before but never understood it! NOW I DO. For a parent to have school admin say they will make “special accommodations” for a 7 year old-ONLY because she is having trouble concentrating and is distracted by the other students, I YELLED NO, I want my child to have to learn to deal w/ distractions and not make EXCUSES. I don’t have a say in how my child is educated IF she remained in PS. NOW I have an OPTION now, Step Up gives kids the option The scholarship has given me CHOICES I did NOT have before..
    public school has change SO much in the past 10 -15 years, it is NOT the same system it was and it will never be what it was. Too many political and big corp American companies involved. Teachers are NOT allow to teach, no individuals -just a MASS!

    • Mary Alice September 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

      These people are to be Ashame of themselves. Don’t they read the statistic of the percentage of the public schools children who are coming out of their school not even able to read properly. The only focus that I see in the public school in Florida is F-Cat maybe they should re-define the meaning. The only High school in my district had two near death stabbing in less than two weeks. If they have any sense at all they would know that violence is the number one subject in public school these days. For parents who have paid hard earned taxes to support these (F schools) change overnight to (A’s) because of F-Cat results, they need to look at the bigger picture. This is political season: We are tired of all non base complaints. Please look into how to better the school system. Why fight with a program that works. This is America Land of opportunity for all. Not just a hand full. All I have to say without good solid education, would these people even have the opportunity to open their mouths. Regardless what school they attended . It was long time ago and the dynamic of the school system have changed drastically. How many deaths and stabbings have we had so far in the publics schools?

    • Anonymous September 4, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      They are too concentrated on tests and test scored in public schools. You any teach all children the same because they don’t all learn the same. I had to pull my kids out of public school because my oldest was falling to far behind and would freak out over the testing and doing bad. Thank goodness for the step up for student scholarship that she is actually glad to go to school and doesn’t feel discouraged with learning like public school made her feel.

  5. concerned parent September 4, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    Last school year my daughter was left behind by the public school system. Her self esteem and enthusiasm for learning seemed to had suffered as a result. There was a total lack of positive reinforcement. We were constantly receiving negative feedback from the teacher due to my daughter inability to meet school learning requirements. We were in constant contact with school administration and her teacher, trying to help our daughter active her educational needs. Despite our efforts she slipped through the cracks right before our eyes.
    The one good thing that came out of our constant efforts is that she was able to qualify for programs such as this one.
    My daughter has started this school year at her new school. I have already seen a tremendous difference in her. She is once again excited about going to school her self esteem is through the roof. Her teacher tells us she is one of the brightest students in her class.
    This program is giving something priceless to us.
    Our daughters education!

  6. M September 4, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    The State of Florida has privatized many originally state funded programs, for instance the prison system. Gov. Rick Scott has done this and he should be the one to continue saving the State of Florida money by keeping this tax credit voucher program. If it costs the state less money to educate students through this tax credit voucher program, then why not do it? Did you know the pay of private school teachers is anywhere from 10-20,000 less per year, yet these students are learning and thriving. These are the students who are graduating with the majority moving on to attend State public colleges and some who even recieve scholarships to 4 year colleges! Do we not want our economy to succeed? If we can save money on education through privatization, students graduate, move on to college, get a Vocational, 2 or 4 yr degree= contribution to society and economy. That would make any President and Governor smile! It just makes sense. Sorry Public School Teachers we still love you, we just want cheaper tax output and a better quality environment, and hey guess what, you all can stop complaining about your overfilled classrooms. Then you can have a more quality experience in your public school classroom. Can you imagine? 15-18 students per public school Teacher? The classroom would not need to have all students mainstreamed, since private schools take students with challenges. The students who have challenges and remain at public school would also reap the benefits of less stressed ESE Teachers. One more thing, about the religious school choices, It’s not like all the parents want to put their children in that kind of Private school. There are very few nonreligious available.


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