Parents of children with disabilities are pressing to intervene in a lawsuit challenging an expansion of the state's de facto voucher system, saying a ruling against the new law would also strike down a program that helps them pay for educational services.
Six families are asking to be allowed to join the case on behalf of the state after the Florida Education Association challenged a wide-ranging education measure (SB 850) that included both the voucher expansion and the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program.
FEA, the state's largest teachers' union, says the law -- which also makes changes in middle-school and career education -- violates a provision of the Florida Constitution that requires that bills deal with a single subject.
"The PLSA (Personal Learning Scholarship Account) scholarship is, in my definition, manna from heaven for not just my family, but all the families that stand behind me and the thousands throughout the state who have already applied for the scholarship," said Julie Kleffel, who spoke at a news conference Thursday to highlight the parents' case.
Kleffel's daughter, Faith, has Down syndrome.
In addition to drawing attention to the story of the parents, speakers at the news conference also used it as an opportunity to bash the union.
"I'm really disappointed that FEA would pay these lawyers to go against these families that are in so much need," said former Sen. Al Lawson, who did lobbying for a pro-voucher group in 2014 but said he didn't work on SB 850. "It's the damnedest thing that I've ever seen, in this educational process, for those kids who need it most."
But FEA Vice President Joanne McCall blamed the situation on the Republican-dominated Legislature.
"The personal learning accounts for students with disabilities did not pass in the Legislature this session on its own. ... It took an illegal maneuver by legislative leaders to pass the bill by attaching it to an unrelated measure," McCall said in a statement issued by the union.
Clint Bolick, a lawyer with the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, pushed back on the union's case against the legislation.
"There is a single subject for this bill and that single subject is education -- particularly education for a variety of kids who have special needs or other educational disadvantages," he said. "That is the unifying theme of this bill, SB 850."
Bolick also questioned the FEA's motives for challenging the law, saying the organization was only using the single-subject issue to fight a bill it disagrees with.
However, Bolick's organization has used procedural grounds to fight other laws. For example, it is arguing against the expansion of Medicaid in Arizona on procedural grounds, filing a lawsuit saying that the expansion includes a tax increase. That state's Constitution requires tax increases to be approved by a two-thirds majority, which the expansion bill did not get.
Bolick tried to differentiate that case from the FEA's and didn't dispute the union's right to file the suit.
"They have the right to do whatever they want," he said. "The point is that whereas for the Goldwater Institute protecting the rights of taxpayers is part of our mission, the Florida Education Association vindicating the single-subject provision of the Florida Constitution -- I think you would search their website in vain to find that that's part of their mission."