Update: Clergy, parents back Florida tax credit scholarships before court hearing

Travis Pillow

Cheryl Joseph

Scholarship parent Cheryl Joseph speaks at a Tallahassee press conference.

Note: Our coverage of today’s hearing can be found here.

A Florida appeals court this afternoon will hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which allows more than 78,000 low-income students to attend private schools.
The statewide teachers union, the state chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women voters and other groups challenged the program in August of 2014, but a Leon County circuit court judge dismissed the case in May 2015.

Groups representing school boards and school administrators have since dropped out of the suit, but the remaining plaintiffs are taking the case to the First District Court of Appeal, and Joanne McCall, the lead plaintiff and president of the Florida Education Association, has said she plans to fight the lawsuit all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ahead of the hearing, a group of scholarship parents and African-American ministers called a press conference, where they presented a petition signed by 100 prominent religious leaders and by 5,000 others online, calling on the NAACP to drop out of the suit. Several clergy members who say they generally align with the civil rights organization have criticized its involvement in the case.

“We are friends of the NAACP,” Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, said, noting he is a lifelong member. “My great organization is on the wrong side of history on this.”

The petition states:

We see no principled reason to fight an education program that is targeted exclusively at low-income children and has a 14-year track record of helping black students succeed. We believe in public education, and believe this scholarship makes it stronger.

According to Politico Florida, Adora Obi Nweze, president of Florida’s NAACP chapter, responded that the program has undermined public schools, an argument the plaintiffs have also made in court.

“It is in our founding principles of the NAACP that every child should have access to a quality education — not 5 percent of the children, not 10 percent of the children, but 100 percent of the children,” she said.

“It’s about dollars that are no longer available to all children. The dollars that are being denied the rest of the children cause services to be reduced and, in some cases, even diminished to being eliminated,” she said. “You are taking out public taxpayers’ money to educate the few while leaving 90 percent without.”

However, Leon County Judge George Reynolds dismissed the case last spring, in part because the plaintiffs could not show the program has harmed public schools.

And studies have found, among other things, that the program helped drive a small but discernible increase in public-school test scores, and that it saves taxpayers money, which can then be reinvested in public schools.

“This is not us against the public school system,” Howard Fuller, the chairman emeritus of the Black Alliance for Educational options, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the program, said during today’s press conference. “This is us saying we want these families to have another option.”

Cheryl Joseph, who uses scholarships to send her three girls to Tampa Catholic High School and Academy Prep Center, said her children attended public elementary schools and did well, but needed a different option — the kind of option that once was available only to well-off families — once they reached middle school.

“My girls are thriving,”  she said. “I am so happy that I actually had the choice as to where my kids can go to school.”

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program in Florida.

Today’s hearing will hinge not on the program’s constitutional merits, but on whether the plaintiffs have legal standing to challenge it, a question that has stymied lawsuits challenging tax credit scholarships in other states.

The groups behind the lawsuit have argued the program serves as a “successor” to a private school voucher program the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2006, but defenders of the program, including a group of scholarship parents, have noted the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 rejected a lawsuit challenging an Arizona tax credit scholarship program. Unlike vouchers, which are funded directly from the state treasury, justices in Winn v. Arizona noted that tax credit scholarships are funded by voluntary private donations.

Coverage elsewhere: Miami Herald. Tallahassee Democrat. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Watchdog. See also: Statement from the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and a Democrat guest column by Holmes.

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