Floridas legislative session may be over for the year, but the controversy over a bill to expand the states voucher program is just heating up. On Wednesday, the largest teachers' union in the state filed a lawsuit against the governor, members of the Cabinet and Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart over the recently-passed legislation, claiming its many added provisions make it unconstitutional.
Tom Faasse of the Florida Education Association filed the lawsuit in Leon County Court over the bill, which passed on the last day of this year's legislative session.
The legislation, SB 850, started out as a five-page bill in February and originally aimed to expand Florida's collegiate high school program -- but as the legislation made its way through various committees in the Florida House and Senate, additional measures kept on getting tacked onto the legislation, eventually resulting in the bill expanding to 40 pages addressing a variety of issues related to education.
Some of the more controversial provisions -- like the creation of scholarships for students with special needs -- saw trouble when they were brought on as stand-alone bills. The second-to-last day before the end of the legislative session, the scholarship provision and other measures were added onto SB 850.
Under the Florida Constitution, the Legislature has restricted authority to create laws and each law must "embrace but one subject" which should also be expressed in the bill's title.
The FEA alleges that the legislation violates this rule because SB 850 contains too many subjects and does not adequately express them in its title.
FEA Vice President Joanne McCall expressed discontentment over the last-minute additions.
Its an outrage that corporate voucher expansion was tacked onto an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the sessions final day, McCall said.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, gave a thumbs up to the FEAs legal action.
[This lawsuit] brings to light what I believe was the Republicans last-minute hijacking of a bipartisan education reform bill to revive their plan to expand vouchers, he said. Hopefully, the courts will agree that this was an unconstitutional coupling of unrelated education provisions and reject this voucher expansion.
But the filing caused an uproar from some education advocacy groups in the state, which called the lawsuit "a new low" for the FEA.
"It is shameful that [the FEA] would spend teachers hard-earned dollars to block opportunities for our most vulnerable students," said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Levesque also took a shot at the FEA, contending the unions lawsuit sends a harsh message for students across the state.
There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids. And sadly, there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power," said Levesque. The FEAs actions send a message that it is OK to overlook some students. This is wrong. The parents and students waiting in line for these options deserve better.
Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also voiced criticism over the FEAs legal action.
I find it hard to believe that this lawsuit embodies the views of the talented teachers across our state who actually work with these children day in and day out and see the progress they are capable of making if provided the appropriate tools, he said Wednesday. It is unfortunate the hard-earned money our teachers contribute to the FEA is now being spent to fund litigation designed to limit educational opportunities for children across our state.
View the complaint here.
Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at Allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter at @AllisonNielsen.