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Activists Target Florida School Choice Program

A Florida law using tax credits to enable families to attend private schools violates the separation of church and state, according to a new lawsuit.

The Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s premier teachers union, along with the state PTA, the Florida School Boards Association and a host of other groups, is taking to the courts to challenge the Tax-Credit Scholarship Program. The program allows for corporations to donate money to scholarship programs for low-income Floridians, and then claim a 100 percent tax deduction on the money donated.

The program’s design is intended to get around a 2006 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which found that school vouchers funded by the state illegally diverted public money towards religious institutions. The new system does not make direct use of any government funds, instead relying entirely on incentivizing private donations.

That distinction, the plaintiffs claim, is insufficient, and harms students who remain in Florida’s public schools.

“Florida’s voucher programs are a risky experiment that gambles taxpayers’ money and children’s lives,” said FEA vice president Joanne McCall in a statement. “Our state’s taxpayers and students would be better served by investing to improve our lowest performing schools and helping all of the students who attend them.”

The lawsuit is the second against Florida’s program this summer. Two months ago, the FEA filed another lawsuit claiming a recent expansion of the program to include families with higher incomes was illegal. This new lawsuit, however, is far more ambitious, seeking to vanquish government-enabled school choice in the state once and for all.

The lawsuit was announced as the Supreme Court of New Hampshire upheld a similar tax credit regime in that state. The court found that plaintiffs lacked any standing to sue because they could not demonstrate a harm they had suffered under the law.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, immediately condemned the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit is just the latest attack on parental choice by an entrenched education establishment more concerned about protecting the status quo than providing families the opportunities afforded by a great education,” Bush, who worked to implement Florida’s school choice system as governor, said in a Foundation press release.

Other supporters of the tax credits sharply criticized the alleged motivations underlying the lawsuit. State Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican, said the timing of the suit was “hypocritical,” and indicated Florida public schools’ disdain for low-income students.

“When Florida Tax Credit Scholarships were available only to the very poor, who disproportionately are minority families, and other students with unique needs, the School Boards Association didn’t challenge their constitutionality,” said Gaetz in a statement. “These students often bring more challenges to the classroom and require extra help, more individualized instruction and additional resources.  It is only now, when the eligibility for scholarships has been expanded and when less-impoverished students can participate that the School Board Association has discovered its constitutional indignation.”

Jon East, vice president for policy and public affairs at Stand Up for Students, a non-profit that helps implement the tax credit scholarships, predicted that the lawsuit would struggle to get off the ground. He cited the case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, a 2011 Supreme Court case which upheld Arizona’s tax credit scholarship program.

“They threw out the case in Arizona…[saying] ‘you lack standing, case closed,’” East told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Is it right or wrong? I don’t know, but it is the law of the land.”

East said that the current tax-credit scholarships would help over 67,000 students this year attend 1,500 different private schools. The average scholarship recipient is only 9 percent over the poverty line, and they are heavily black or Hispanic, he said.

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