The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will not take up an appeal on a high-profile school vouchers case.
The decision comes as a major setback to vouchers opponents, including the Florida Education Association (FEA), the statewide teachers’ union, but was applauded by school choice advocates. (Separate story on the FEA’s reaction here.)
The court denied a request to review the case, but did not comment on its merits. “No motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court,” its 2-paragraph order said.
“Who is allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers?” FEA President Joanne McCall said in a statement. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, don’t answer that question.” McCall is the lead plaintiff in the case.
Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston concurred in the decision. Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented, saying he would have granted oral argument.
The nonprofit organization that administers the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2001, declared that “the legal battle over the nation’s largest private school choice program is over,” in a blog post.
Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up For Students organization, said “the court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children.”
His organization and other supporters had put on a pro-vouchers rally last year featuring Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The FEA held its own “Enough is Enough!” rally days before.
“We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck,” Tuthill added in a statement.
The program “provides for state tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). The SFOs then award scholarships to eligible children of low-income families,” its website says.
The tax credit cap for the current year is $559 million, according to the state. That cap will increase to $698,8 million for the 2017-2018 state fiscal year.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran also issued a statement, calling the move “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.” The program is a favorite of legislative Republicans.
“I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year,” said Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican.
The Supreme Court’s inaction leaves in place a 1st District Court of Appeal decision, siding with a lower court’s decision to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others.
They had argued that the state’s method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren this year is unconstitutional.
The appeals court said the plaintiffs haven’t been harmed by the program, and denied that it violates state law. The vouchers are funded by corporations, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.
Florida has several voucher programs in place; the one being challenged extends vouchers to low-income families, most of them black or Hispanic, who send their children to religious schools.
It began in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush, and legislators later approved expanding it to middle-income families.
The teacher union argued that it violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and directing tax money to religious institutions.
But Judge Lori Rowe, who wrote the 1st DCA opinion, said the plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue because they had not shown that other school funding had declined because of the program, or provided other proof of “concrete harm.”
Rowe added that the tax credit scholarship program doesn’t violate a constitutional ban on state aid to religious institutions because it involves the taxing, and not the spending power, of the Florida Legislature.
The Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM) weighed in later Wednesday morning, saying “Florida is on the right side of history.”
“I am proud to live in a state where educational choices for families are embraced and upheld,” said Shawn Frost, FCSBM president. “… “Let’s return Florida’s focus to where it belongs: on our students.
“We must commit to meeting each child’s unique needs, and improving academic outcomes for all,” Frost said. “When choices work for a child, we should celebrate that success not be threatened by it.”
Background for this post from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.