Supporters of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program can breathe a little easier -- on Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court finally dismissed the lengthy lawsuit against the program, ending a contentious chapter in Florida’s education history.
Florida’s largest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, appealed lower courts’ decisions to dismiss the case. On Wednesday, the five-judge panel of the state’s highest court followed the same path and declined to hear the FEA’s appeal.
In August, the First District Court of Appeal ruled the FEA did not have standing to bring the case.
Step Up For Students, one of the groups administering the program, celebrated the decision Wednesday.
“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” said Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”
The FEA questioned who would be able to challenge the program now that the suit had been dismissed.
“Who is allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers?” asked FEA President Joanne McCall. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, don’t answer that question. We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court. We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures. This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program.”
Since 2002, thousands of Florida students have participated in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which gives low-income students scholarship money to attend better-performing schools, which are often private religious schools.
The program has grown by leaps and bounds throughout the years, with an increase of nearly 80,000 students since the 2005-2006 school year. The program currently serves nearly 100,000 students statewide.
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program has been mired in controversy in recent years. The program is the center of a Florida Education Association lawsuit which has sought to end the program, alleging it is unconstitutional and diverts much-needed funding from Florida’s public school system.
The lawsuit has been a back-and-forth battle between the teachers’ union and the voucher program, where the scholarships are entirely funded by businesses who in turn receive tax breaks for their participation.
Some of Florida’s most powerful lawmakers have also jumped into the foray, putting their muscle behind the program and trashing the lawsuit mercilessly.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran called the lawsuit “evil” when he took the gavel in November.
“I know that is a strong word. But think about it,” he said. “You are in a lifeboat. You see a small helpless child at sea. The child is swimming toward a different lifeboat in hopes of saving their own life. Who in their right mind would have the reaction to destroy the other lifeboat — all because the child wasn’t coming to your boat? If anyone here witnessed that, what would you call it?”
Corcoran urged the FEA to drop the suit and shift their focus back onto Florida’s students.
“We need to come together and build an education system that isn’t afraid to innovate and take risks,” he said. “Let’s fight alongside each other to give ALL children, of ALL races, and ALL incomes a world class education.”
Corcoran praised the court's decision Wednesday.
“A great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students," he said in a statement. "I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year.”
The teachers union, however, vowed not to give up the fight for public education.
“We will continue to fight for every student to be able to attend a great public school,” McCall said. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of all of the students and fight programs that create injustice in the system. We know why parents sometimes embrace these voucher schemes. They move their kids to these programs because they want smaller class size, safer environments and less and more sensible testing. That’s exactly what we want for public schools.”
READ MORE FROM SUNSHINE STATE NEWS