Republican offers to serve as ‘bridge’ to teachers union on FL school choice suit

Travis Pillow

Citing concern for low-income children whose school choice scholarships are threatened by a recently filed lawsuit, a key Republican legislator is offering to play the role of peacemaker with the Florida teachers union.

Sen. Jack Latvala

Sen. Jack Latvala

In a letter to Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, which was obtained and reported by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, offers to serve as a “bridge” between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the union, which last week announced the first standalone constitutional challenge of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

Latvala writes that he opposes the lawsuit, and that he’s worried it could displace nearly 70,000 scholarship students currently attending private schools if it succeeds. The Florida program is the largest private school choice program in the country.

At the same time, Latvala acknowledges concerns about the program’s growth. Both FEA attorney Ron Meyer and the heads of other groups that have joined the suit have said they opted not to challenge the 13-year-old program in its infancy, but that its growth has reached a tipping point in recent years.

Demand for the scholarships has continued to grow, with the program expected to serve almost twice as many students this school year as it did in 2010. The program is administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In his letter, dated Wednesday, Latvala offers to “try to ensure that the current success of the program does not exceed the tipping point of what is constitutional or responsible,” while also ensuring students can keep their scholarships.

An olive branch to the teachers union has more credibility coming from Latvala than it might coming from other Republicans in the Legislature.

He’s known for assembling bipartisan coalitions to kill bills backed by legislative leaders. The past two years, he was instrumental in beating back changes to the state pension system opposed by the FEA and other public-sector unions. He is also considered the more moderate of the two contenders vying to become Senate President in 2016.

JoAnne McCall, the FEA vice president who has been the union’s most prominent figure in its recent battles against private school choice programs, told the Times/Herald she would be open to working with Latvala on a range of issues. But she adds the suit, in which she’s the lead plaintiff, will proceed in the meantime.

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