Florida Teachers Union Clouds Prospects For Special Needs Students

Jared Blanchard Attorney, Goldwater Institute
Font Size:

The fate of nearly two thousand children with special needs will be debated in a Florida court this week.

One of those affected is Brandon Berman. Brandon has autism. He also suffers from congenital muscular dystrophy and hereditary spastic paraplegia. Because of this, Brandon is unable to attend school. Through the public school system, he receives only four hours of instruction a week through homebound services.

Brandon, like thousands of other students with special needs, had little hope of receiving a quality education. That is, until his mother, Donna, learned about Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts — a new educational program in Florida.

Through a Personal Learning Scholarship Account, or PLSA, Donna can choose to give her son the educational experience that he deserves. PLSAs place funds into an educational account that Brandon’s mother can manage. She can now tailor Brandon’s education to his unique needs — a feat the public school system is simply not able to perform. Donna can use the funds to hire Brandon a tutor, purchase a curriculum, and get him the therapy he needs to be successful in school.

For Brandon and more than 1,800 other Florida children using this innovative new program, PLSAs offer an opportunity to receive an education ideally suited to their unique needs.

But not everyone has been supportive of giving students like Brandon this opportunity. A teacher’s union, known as the Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit that threatens to end the popular PLSA program — which received over 3,000 applicants since enrollment opened in July. The union wants Brandon back in a system that has failed him.

The union’s lawsuit is based on the Florida Constitution’s single subject rule — a commonsense rule that requires the Florida legislature to pass bills that only cover one subject. The union contends that the education bill creating the PLSA program was too broad because it changed multiple laws relating to schools, so it violates the Florida Constitution.

But in Florida, changes to education laws have traditionally been treated as a single subject, because they are often broad and multifaceted, yet interconnected. Even though the union admits it does not like the PLSA program and other provisions of the bill, it insists that the point of its lawsuit is only to teach the Florida legislature to follow the rules. Interestingly, in the past two years, the union has had other opportunities to block bills that changed multiple education laws — six, in fact. One of those bills created the innovative scholarship program for special needs children like Brandon. Another contained a backdoor pay raise for public school teachers a year early. Apparently following the rules means favoring the union.

While union officials play political games, picking and choosing when the single subject rule applies, students like Brandon get caught in the crossfire. A “collateral casualty” is how the FEA’s lawyer described the fate of the innovative program and the students it helps, should he win in court.

Children are not collateral casualties. And their educational fates should not be decided by union self-interest. Ensuring that all children receive a great education should be a guarantee.

Where students go to school and how they are educated is a decision that must involve parents. Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts give students and their parents the power to choose the most effective education possible — one that meets their child’s unique and varied needs. It’s time to embrace this new program and the hope it offers to Brandon, and thousands of other Florida families.

Jared Blanchard is an attorney at the Goldwater Institute and is representing Florida families using Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts.