Thomas Manning May 30, 2016, 7:02pm


TALLAHASSEE – The First District Court of Appeal is considering whether the Florida Education Association and numerous other groups have the right to legally challenge a 15-year-old scholarship program that helps send low-income students to private schools. 

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship grants tax credits to corporations that make donations to two nonprofit scholarship organizations that offer students more educational choices than just what's available in their neighborhood schools. 

A circuit court judge last year dismissed the lawsuit filed by the statewide teachers union, the Florida PTA and other groups, who claimed the voucher-like program was unconstitutional by providing state funding to religious institutions. They also claimed by drawing students away from public schools the scholarships were also taking away funding from the schools as well. 

More than 78,000 students have received scholarships of $5,677 as part of the program, with the funds facilitated by Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students.

“The case was sent back to an appeals court,” Mary Reynolds, of the Florida School Boards Association told the Florida Record. “The judge thought that the plaintiffs did not have standing.”

The Florida School Boards Association was originally a plaintiff in the case, but withdrew its bid after Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds rejected the case last year. 

In his rejection of the case, Reynolds said last year that because the program wasn’t funded by the state, but by private organizations, it did not break the law. He also said the plaintiffs were not able to prove that the scholarship program harmed public schools.

“Poor parents must be empowered to choose the right school for their kids” John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman who is chairman of Step Up for Students, recently told the Economic Club of Florida. 

Florida ranks 35th in the U.S. when it comes to poverty, with 16.5 percent of residents having incomes below the poverty line of $23,834 for a family of four in 2014.

If the scholarship program is ruled unconstitutional, tens of thousands of students would be forced back into the public school system. 

In order for the case to move forward, though, the court first has to rule if the plaintiffs filing suit even have the constitutional right to do so.

Should the judge give the go-ahead for the case, it will then go back to the lower court for trial.

Calls to Kirtley and others involved in the suit went unanswered. 

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Florida First District Court of Appeal
2000 Drayton Drive
Tallahassee, FL 32311

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