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Florida union-led school choice lawsuit suffers setback

By   /   March 30, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

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DROP OUT: The Florida Association of School Administrators dropped out of a union-led effort to end a popular school choice program. But the lawsuit will continue.

A founding member of a teachers union-led lawsuit announced Friday it’s dropping out of an effort to kill a popular school choice program.

The Florida Association of School Administrators said it still supports ending tax credit scholarships, or privately funded vouchers, which would effectively send 70,000 low-income students back to the public schools they chose to leave. The group, however, has decided to let the other complainants make it happen.

“Having made our position clear with regards to tax credit scholarships through our participation in the lawsuit thus far, it is time to dedicate the resources of our 5,000 members on the priorities that are the heart of our organization,” said Juhan Mixon, FASA’s executive director.

FASA represents public school principals, vice principals, administrators and school supervisors. Its withdrawal is the latest development in a dispute that pits the interests of public school employee unions against those of Florida’s economically disadvantaged students and their school choice allies.

Upon hearing the news, Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights activist and vocal supporter of the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program, said in an emailed statement, “Hallelujah.”

Matthews is a member of the Save Our Scholarships Coalition that includes the Florida Black Ministers Parental Choice Alliance, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and the Florida Alliance for School Choice, among others.

“I tip my hat to Mr. Mixon and the board of the Florida Association of School Administrators. This scholarship helps 70,000 of the state’s most underprivileged children, and there is no reason that school principals should be working against their interests,” Matthews said.

Passed in 2001 under then Gov. Jeb Bush, the Tax Credit Scholarship program allows corporations to donate to certified education nonprofits in exchange for a tax credit of an equal amount. The nonprofits, or scholarship funding organizations, then distribute the funding directly to families in need.

The program affords poor students the opportunity to attend private schools or schools outside of those assigned according to where students live.

But the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, and the Florida School Boards Association say the scholarships divert funding away from the public education system and cut into schools’ bottom line.

Their lawsuit asserts the scholarships “provide for the education of Florida children in private schools at public expense.”

The same argument was used to successfully undermine a separate voucher program in 2006, called Opportunity Scholarships. What’s different this time is that although the state government sanctions the tax credit program, no public tax dollars are used. The funding goes from private corporations to nonprofits to parents and then to private schools.

The FEA says whether it’s a “tax expenditure” or a direct appropriation, the result is the same: less money for public schools.

The program is capped at $358 million this year, but will jump to $447 million in the 2015-16 school year. That increase, along with growing demand from low-income families, has gotten the union’s attention despite Florida’s K-12 public education system receiving a record $20.3 billion this year.

More than 70 percent of scholarship recipients are minorities, and their average family income is 5 percent above the poverty level, according to Save Our Scholarships. The maximum scholarship per student is $5,272, according to the Florida Department of Education, or about half of what taxpayers spend per-pupil in public schools.

“This kind of program strengthens public education, which is why this lawsuit is such a mistake. Maybe FASA now gets that,” Matthews said.

The lawsuit is under review at a state circuit court in Tallahassee. A ruling could be issued at any time.

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William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association. William’s work has impacted discussions on education, privacy, criminal justice reform, and government and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Watchdog, William worked for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. There, he launched a legislative news website covering state economic issues. After leaving New York City in 2010, William worked for the Florida Attorney General’s Office where he assisted state attorneys general in prosecuting Medicaid Fraud. William graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, City University of New York. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three young children.