TALLAHASSEE – A three-judge panel of the 1st District
Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision by the circuit court that found the Florida
Education Association (FEA) and other plaintiffs lacked standing in its attempt
to have a state-funded scholarship program declared unconstitutional.
The panel said in its ruling: “Appellants failed to allege
that they suffered any special injury as a result of the operation of the Florida
Tax Credit Scholarship Program and failed to establish that the legislature
exceeded any constitutional limitation on its taxing and spending authority
when it authorized the program. At most, appellants quarrel with the legislature’s
policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public
schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must
decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine.”
The FEA, Florida National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of Women Voters of Florida
(LWVF) and Sen. Geraldine Thompson are among the complainants
Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, the
Florida Department of Education (DOE), and the Commissioner of Education Pam
Stewart are among the named respondents.
The initial lawsuit argued
the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTCSP) is an attempt by the Florida Legislature
to use state-funded programs to pay for private education of Florida children.
The plaintiffs contended Article IX requires the funds to be used to support
children’s education in free public schools.
The Florida Supreme Court held a similar program, the
Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), was unconstitutional in 2006 under
Article IX of the Florida State Constitution because it "devot[ed] the state's
resources to the education of children within [Florida] through means other
than a system of free public schools."
complaint contended that state funds being used to support private
schooling for children that would otherwise be used on public education. The Florida
DOE reported on its fact sheet, “During the 2014-15 school year, scholarships
in the amount of $344.9 million were awarded to a total of 69,950 students enrolled
in 1,533 participating Florida private schools,” of which 70 percent are religious-based
complaint argued the OSP was declared unconstitutional by the court for
violating the "no aid" clause of Article I, § 3 which prohibited it from
taking “revenue from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church,
sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” The
plaintiffs contended the ruling should be the same against FTCSP for also using
tax revenues to fund private religious-based educations.
The plaintiffs also argued the schools receiving the
funds aren’t held to the same educational standards as public schools nor is
there a stipulation they be superior in education. The lack of uniform
assessments or standards, they argued, also violates title IX in part, “that it
is the state's 'paramount duty' to make adequate provision for education and
that the manner in which this mandate must be carried out is 'by law for a
uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”
The dismissal was surprising to the one of the
plaintiffs. Pamela Goodman, president of LWVF, told the Florida Record.
“We were shocked and mystified by the ruling," she said. "We
"Parents should know what assessments
are being used, they should know if these schools are good alternatives, and if
they are we need to do some research.”
Goodman said there are plenty of struggling Florida
public schools that could benefit from the money being given to families to
spend on private education.
“The money for these charter schools comes from
taxpayer dollars. While there are many great charter schools, some are
for-profit. The money trail needs to be reviewed here,” Goodman said.
A recent article
written by a Florida resident accused LWVF of harming her children by
participating in the case. She claimed the FTCSP helps low-income families have
educational opportunities they would not have had before. Goodman responded she
read the article but the author never contacted her personally to discuss her
concerns. She denied the accusations that their efforts harm children and said
they are seeking to protect and improve the public education available to all Florida
Goodman said she could not release more information
surrounding the plaintiffs’ endeavors as a whole but said they are evaluating
their next steps in the case.
A particular argument the appellate court focused on
was the claim by the plaintiffs the FTCSP not only violates the state constitution
but also harms public schools. The complaint read: “As students withdraw from
public schools and enroll in private schools with vouchers provided by the
Scholarship Program, their public school district's funding under the FEFP is
The court found the plaintiffs failed to prove injury.
to the court in this case was extremely difficult,” Pat Drago, advocacy chair for the Florida LWV Board, told
the Florida Record.
She said every student has
a base allocation for taxes. When students leave a public school to go to a private
school, the money follows them. In turn, that district loses revenues and has
to respond by cutting positions and services.
“That is not the premier issue
here, though,” Drago said. “The standing issue is that the legislature
circumvented the constitution by creating a 501(c)(3) to take
pre-tax revenues and funnel it to private schools.”
Drago explained the only difference between OSP and
FTCSP is that the legislature created the separate 501(c)(3) in order to
intentionally circumvent the previous ruling and the constitution.
“As a citizen
of Florida, every citizen should be concerned when the legislature can
circumvent the law by establishing a 501(c)(3) to use pre-tax
dollars. What else can be done with that 501(c)(3)?” Drago said.
In reference to the court’s decision that the plaintiffs did not qualify for
a legal exception allowing them to challenge the program as taxpayers, she said
while she isn’t an attorney, she questioned why every taxpayer in
Florida would not have standing in this case given taxpayer dollars are being used to
fund private schools.
Drago said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal
and if they choose to file it, hopes the Supreme Court will be interested in hearing the case about the legislature sidestepping Florida law.
The DOE states on its website,
“The [FTCSP] tax credit cap for the current year is $559,082,031. The tax
credit cap amount will increase to $698,852,539 for the 2017-2018 state fiscal
Florida is one of 16
states with a tax credit scholarship. Florida students are eligible for the
program if their family household income is no more than 260 percent of the federal
poverty level, or $62,010, for a family of four.