Give Joanne McCall credit for acknowledging that the Florida Education Association opposes private learning options for both low-income and special needs students, but let’s not pretend the union’s lawsuit against these scholarships is driven by its devotion to parliamentary procedure.
“We’re all taught to play by the rules,’’ wrote McCall, FEA vice president, in Tuesday’s Tampa Tribune. “In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole.”
This is a bit much. The FEA is certainly entitled to ask the court to determine whether this new law violated the single-subject requirement in the state constitution, but that is also the only play it has left. Few organizations work the Legislature with more sophistication and heavier artillery than the FEA. It has spent more than $20 million in the state political arena in the past dozen years, and a House Democrat said FEA threatened her with a primary opponent if she voted for the scholarship bill this year. That House member, Daphne Campbell, representing a mostly Haitian-American district in North Miami, indeed voted for the scholarship. And she indeed has a primary opponent – funded by the union.
The FEA is hardly alone in this modus operandi, and big campaign money is certainly being spent by all sides in the education arena. The point is simply that the major protagonists play to win, and you don’t have to look back too far to see that FEA is not quite so devoted to “civil society” when it’s on the winning end.
Just last year, FEA was caught by surprise when the appropriations bill (Page 22) offered a $480 million pay raise for teachers that could not go into effect for a full year. With the Legislature in its final days, FEA launched into overdrive, working with the governor’s office to slip a provision into a 45-page conforming bill just 48 hours before the session ended. The provision undid language in the appropriations bill, allowing teachers to get their pay raises sooner.
It’s worth noting that the conforming bill, SB 1514, had so many different subjects that its title alone ran for four full pages and began with the phrase “An act relating to education.” If that sounds familiar, it is because the FEA is decrying precisely those same features in the bill, SB 850, it is asking a court to nullify this year.
It’s common for conforming bills to include a wide range of provisions related to the budget. And the FEA also cites procedural setbacks to argue the tax-credit and personal learning account provisions had “failed.” The point is that process leading to the passage of big-ticket legislation is almost always messy, but doesn’t always wind up in court.
FEA attorney Ron Meyer has tried to deflect questions about how the lawsuit might put the new special needs scholarship out of business by calling it “collateral casualty.” It is certainly true that FEA focused more of its attention to defeating the tax credit scholarship provisions, but McCall was more candid in her Tribune commentary, acknowledging “serious concerns” about the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA).
During the session, the FEA was less measured about those concerns. It whipped up its members with legislative newsletters that tied the PLSA to ALEC, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and used phrases like “another scheme to commercialize education” and “the camel’s nose under the tent” and “this program will blow the doors off public education.” In her own legislative testimony, McCall called the program “a giant step backward for all students” and, in her letter urging a veto, she dismissively labeled the PLSA as “an entitlement for students with disabilities.”
The FEA is well within its rights to challenge the manner by which SB 850 was adopted, but let’s not wax too poetic about its desire to clean up the legislative process. It threw all its considerable resources into stopping the tax credit scholarship and PLSA provisions, two of the highest profile education issues in the 2014 session, and it came up agonizingly short on the final day. So it is turning to the courts instead. That’s the way the system works, but don’t mistake it for civic duty.