Note: This post has been updated. See below.
The lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program stoked a debate at the Escambia County School Board last week, as members voted to pay membership dues for the state school boards association.
One board member, Jeff Bergosh, is a critic of the lawsuit and a member of a new association for school board members. He said he wanted to “opt out” of funding his share of Florida School Boards Association dues. Like dissident school board members who spoke up elsewhere, Bergosh prompted a discussion, but did not receive backing from fellow members, who eventually out-voted him 4-1.
Earlier in the meeting, several parents weighed in supporting the program that helps 70,000 low-income students attend private schools. The scholarships are administered by non-profit organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.
“Allow us the opportunity to continue to keep out children in schools where they are flourishing,” said Deaundrice Kitchen, a scholarship parent who has been recognized for her work as a teacher assistant in the school district and said she has “seen many success stories” in public schools. “If this scholarship is taken away, it will be stripping us of our right of freedom of choice.”
Bergosh wanted the board to hold off on paying nearly $22,000 in dues, noting the issue is getting attention in the Legislature. Bills under consideration would bar membership organizations from using public funds to pay for lawsuits against the state.
Patty Hightower, the school board’s chairman and president of the FSBA, said the board joined the association as a group, not as individuals. The association’s main purpose, she said, is to provide training for its members.
The lawsuit argues tax credit scholarships violate a state constitutional prohibition on public funding for religious organizations and a provision giving school boards exclusive authority over public schools, while the state has argued those claims shouldn’t succeed because the program is not funded out of the state treasury. Hightower said the case is “not about school choice,” but about “separation of church and state” and “public funds being used to educate children.”
“We are blessed in Escambia County that we have school choice. Parents can put their children in a public school of their choice,” she said. “I am a school board member, elected to support the public schools of my county, to make the best decisions for the public schools of my county.”
Bergosh told the board he supports public education, and has sent his own children to public schools, but opposes attempts “to kill a program that benefits more than 1,000 students here in Escambia County.”
“There are a lot of people that don’t have the money to send their kids to private school, and a lot of those people rely on these scholarships, and who am I, and who are we, as the Florida School Boards Association, to get in the middle of that, and judge that?” he asked.
The video of last week’s meeting can be seen here.
Update: Hightower said in a telephone interview that her main objections to the scholarship program are that it can be used to help children attend religious schools, and that public schools don’t have the same flexibility to choose standardized tests their students are required to take.
She said there is room in the association for dissenting views, like those aired by Bergosh and his allies elsewhere in the state.
“I understand that not all of us agree, and just because the majority voted one way doesn’t mean that all of us are in lock step behind that group,” she said. “That’s America.”