Educators, pastors hold competing voucher news conferences

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 Voucher students and their parents Thursday rallied outside of the Florida Education Association building in Tallahassee Thursday while inside a wide-ranging coalition including the Florida PTA, NAACP and League of Women Voters explained a legal challenge to the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The suit challenges the program on two counts, a constitutional prohibition on state money going to religious institutions and a requirement that the state provides a quality education to all students in a system of free public schools.

“This program instead of meeting that constitutional mandate diverts state revenue for the purpose of establishing an unregulated hodgepodge of schools that don’t have to meet standards and are not uniformed as is required by the state constitution,” said Ron Meyer, attorney for the Florida Education Association.

The program provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to corporations contributing to private school scholarships for low income children. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a similar program and Meyers cites that case in the lawsuit he filed in Leon County Circuit Court.

The FEA suit is backed by the Florida School Board Association, association of school administrators and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Senate President Don Gaetz called the legal challenge hypocritical.

“When Florida Tax Credit Scholarships were available only to the very poor, who disproportionately are minority families, and other students with unique needs the School Boards Association didn’t challenge their constitutionality,” said Gaetz in a prepared statement. “It is only now, when the eligibility for scholarships has been expanded and when less-impoverished students can participate that the School Board Association has discovered its constitutional indignation.”

The program has been around since 2001 but the Legislature changed the eligibility levels this year; raising incomes level for a partial scholarship to $62,000 a year for a family of four and increasing the number of students eligible.  Meyer explained the program has reached a critical mass and the coalition decided to act.

Tax credits diverted $286 million to the program last year and provided scholarships to 59,000 students to 1,400 private schools, about three-fourths of them operated by religious groups.  Raising income eligibility increased funding to$357 million this year and the number of scholarships to near 70,000.

Dale Landry of the Florida NAACP said he was upset and angry about how a series of reforms have left the public school system “decimated.”

“Take the money, reinvest it in public schools and stop closing the schools at 2:30 in the afternoon,” said Landry, recalling when he was a child schools were a hub of activity into the night but today they are locked behind fences after the last bell rings.

“Vouchers are a box of dollars for private schools,” said Landry. “It’s all capitalism, you see, at the loss of our children and our future.”

Voucher supporters countered the FEA news conference with a rally at the association’s front door. Speakers, including pastors and rabbis bemoaned the politicization of education policy.  They explained that voucher-funded private school scholarships augment and not compete with the private school system.

Clarence Williams of Mount Zion Temple Church of St. Petersburg said many voucher students attended public schools posting among the lowest tier of performance.

“We should not ask parents to wait for the problems in the public schools system have been solved for their children to get an education, “said Williams.  “Programs like this that have a track record of working and being effective and productive ought to be funded.”

The question the FEA suit asks is whether the Florida Constitution allows such a program to be funded.

You can read the suit here.