Education

Judge dismisses Florida school voucher lawsuit

Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called the lawsuit targeting a statewide school voucher program “a politically-motivated legal attack from union bosses financed by the paychecks of hardworking Florida teachers.”
Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called the lawsuit targeting a statewide school voucher program “a politically-motivated legal attack from union bosses financed by the paychecks of hardworking Florida teachers.” Courtesy of Florida Senate

A judge on Wednesday dismissed one of two legal challenges to the state school voucher program.

The lawsuit, filed by the statewide teachers union, targeted a controversial law that both expanded the voucher program and created new scholarships for children with disabilities. The union claimed the law violates a Constitutional requirement that each law be limited to a single subject.

But Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Francis said the social studies teacher named as the plaintiff did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

Francis also said the teacher would have to show he had been harmed by the voucher expansion law.

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said she was “disappointed” with the ruling.

“We wish the judge had taken up the merits of the case, because it’s clear that the legislature overstepped its authority in passing this legislation,” she said.

But incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called the suit “a politically-motivated legal attack from union bosses financed by the paychecks of hardworking Florida teachers.”

Gardiner said he was hopeful the union would “take this opportunity to re-evaluate [its] case and recognize the harm continuing this lawsuit will cause students.”

FEA attorney Ron Meyer said he and union leaders are still determining whether to amend the complaint and file it again.

The school voucher program provides private-school scholarships to more than 60,000 low-income students across the state. The scholarships are funded by businesses, who receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for their contribution.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation increasing the amount of each scholarship and creating partial scholarships for children whose parents earn up to $62,010. The bill also created Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for children with special needs to spend on private tutoring, therapy and educational materials.

The two policies started as stand-alone proposals. Each drew strong opposition from parent and teacher groups. But with two days left in the legislative session, lawmakers combined the concepts into one sweeping education bill (Senate Bill 850) — a move the Florida Education Association later called “sneaky.”

The union still has a separate school voucher lawsuit pending. That complaint contends the voucher program conflicts with the state’s duty to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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