FEA explains why it is headed to court to block education bill

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Florida’s largest teacher union went to court Wednesday to block an education bill signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott.

SB 850 expands a school voucher program and creates a new private school scholarship program for children with special needs, a provision being implemented this month.

The attorney for the Florida Education Association said he launched a “procedural attack” on how the law came to be and seeks to have it nullified. He argued lawmakers ignored a constitutional provision prohibiting them from lumping together unrelated provisions into one proposal.

SB 850 “is logrolling as a poster child here,” said FEA attorney Ron Meyer. “Even the House’s final analysis for the House version of this bill (7033) points out in multiple places where the different provisions are not germane, are not reasonably connected to one another.”

On the final day of the 60-day session, a 141-page amendment containing two proposals rejected during the committee process was attached to the bill and it was approved by both chambers and sent to the governor.

 “One of the things I discuss with my students is how a bill becomes a law,” said Lee County social studies teacher Tom Faasse.  “I’ll certainly be using SB 850 in the future of how an open and transparent process can be hijacked.”

SB 850 raised the limit on household income qualifying children for the Tax Credit Scholarship Program initiated by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Corporations are provided a tax credit for contributing to a voucher program for private schools. The new threshold of $62,000 for a household of four represents nearly a 33-percent increase in the amount a child’s family can earn.

“There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids. And sadly there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by Bush.

“The FEA’s action sends a message that it is OK to overlook some students,” said Levesque, calling the lawsuit a “new low for the FEA.”

The FEA has opposed the program from its inception, arguing it diverts money from the public school system. The Department of Revenue said there were 150 approved applications for the tax credit in the 2013 – 2014 fiscal year, which raised $286 million for scholarships. DOR projects the program will allocate $357 million next year, if the law stands

Bush “would probably say it is an all-time low because we are the only organization that is standing up and speaking out on behalf of public school children and all children,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall.

Senate President-designate Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Haven, disputed McCall’s assertion. In a prepared statement addressing the tax credit provision in SB 850 Gardner said the program, “does not take one dollar from any student in the public school system.”

The new law also created a Personal Learning Scholarship for students with disabilities.

“The legislation we passed earlier this year is only the beginning,” Gardiner said. “We will empower parents and children with unique abilities as long as I am in the process. The teachers union may have given up on these children, but I have not.”