Parents of children with special needs defend scholarships against teachers union lawsuit

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Proponents of a new school choice law for special needs children Thursday had harsh words for the Florida Education Association. The state’s largest teachers union went to court earlier this month to stop implementation of a personal scholarship account.  The suit argued lawmakers violated the single-subject provision of the constitution when it approved the bill authorizing the program.

Six families with special needs children want to intervene in the suit to defend the measure. They were joined by a member of the Goldwater Institute which developed the idea that Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Account is based on.

“The FEA doesn’t care about the single-subject provision of the Florida constitution,” said Clint Bolick, the Institute’s Vice President for Litigation.  “I think you would search their web site in vain to find (that) that is part of its mission. . . they simply oppose all school choice and will use any means at their disposal to defeat it.”

The attorney for the FEA had said the lawsuit was a “procedural attack” on how the law came to be. He called SB 850 which combined expansion of a school voucher program and creation of a special needs scholarship as a “poster child for logrolling.”

Many had assumed the scholarship bill would pass as a stand alone but then lawmakers attached a failed voucher expansion proposal creating the constitutional challenge.  As part of its suit, the FEA cited a House analysis which points out where different provisions of the omnibus education bill are not germane or reasonably connected.

Given that the legal challenge was to be expected, the question put to the parents was whether they feel their children are being used as pawns in a voucher fight between the legislature and teachers’ union.

“I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it,” said Donna Berman, whose son has congenital muscular dystrophy.

The FEA has said that the scholarship program is not its target but “collateral damage” in the suit.

“The parents of students with disabilities have the right to high quality services to help their children develop. It’s a shame that the legislature hasn’t provided adequately for services in our public schools, where the children would be taught and guided by accredited and highly qualified teachers,” said FEA vice president Joanne McCall.

The scholarship money can be used for private schools, tutoring, home schooling and therapy. The state has budgeted $18 million dollars for the program this year and the average scholarship is expected to total around $10,000. So far, about 1,800 applications have been filed for the scholarships for the next school year.

“The funds provided would do untold good, we’re convinced of this,” said Mary Kurnik, one of the parents speaking at the news conference.

The news conference was put together by former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promoted the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts during the legislative session. Also standing with the families joining the lawsuit were Bolick, of the Goldwater Institute, which developed the idea and has defended it in lawsuits in other states, and former state Senator Al Lawson.

“I was really disappointed that the FEA would pay these lawyers to go against these families who are so much in need,” said Lawson. “It’s the damnest thing I have ever seen.”