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Rick Scott announces resignation of his chief inspector general

Melinda Miguel, the state’s chief inspector general, is stepping down.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Miguel, who has served as the governor’s chief inspector general since 2011, has resigned to pursue opportunities in the private sector. Her last day, according to the Governor’s Office, is today.

“Over the last 27 years, I have been trusted with the mantle to stand and serve our great State of Florida and have been inspired and moved by your leadership and courageous determination to make it better,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Now more than ever, I appreciate your stance for liberty, freedom, and justice and you fighting for Florida’s families.”

Miguel’s career with the state dates back to 1989 when she served as a supervisor for player accounting services at the Florida Lottery. She worked her way up the ladder at the Lottery, spending four years as a supervisor, before becoming an auditor and investigator with the agency’s inspector general’s office.

Over the years, she served stints at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Department of Elder Affairs, Department of Education, and the Attorney General’s Office. In 2006, she was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Council of State Agency Inspectors General, a role she served in for about a year.

“Melinda has done a great job serving our state as Inspector General, and I’m extremely grateful for her commitment to ensuring government remains accountable to Florida taxpayers,” said Scott in a statement.

Scott announced Eric Miller, who currently serves as the inspector general at the Agency for Health Care Administration, will serve as the Governor’s Chief Inspector General.

Miller has served in his current position since September 2011. Before joining AHCA, he served as manager of corporate compliance at Citizens Property insurance.

“Eric has dedicated his career to serving our state for more than twenty years. As Inspector General at AHCA, Eric has firsthand experience in fighting fraud and ensuring tax dollars are used efficiently and effectively,” said Scott in a statement. “I am confident he will continue his great work as Chief Inspector General in my office.”

Miller’s first day as chief inspector general is April 21.

Can a moderate ‘old white guy’ beat Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy?

We cannot even get to the halfway point in the Legislative Session without turning to future 2018 races — especially with one Orlando congressional seat poised to become one of the most hotly-contested in the country.

Why?

Orlando is emblematic of Democratic hopes for their party. For the better part of the last few decades, the area has been represented by typical conservative white guys — Bill McCollum, Tom Feeney, John Mica, Ric Keller — and a gerrymandered African-American from Jacksonville (Corrine Brown).

Now, Central Florida has three Democrats: an African-American woman, Val Demings, who was Orlando’s first female police chief, former state Senator Darren Soto, who while born in New Jersey his father is Puerto Rican, and the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress, Stephanie Murphy. This is the Obama coalition, the so-called “coalition of the ascendant,” led by women, minorities, and young people (both Murphy and Soto are in their 30s).

So, what is the GOP answer?

Frank Torres at the Orlando Political Observer reports that David Simmons, the 64-year old Seminole County state Senator, is considering his first congressional run at an age when most Americans are considering retirement. The move would position Simmons to collect three government pensions: one from Social Security, one from the State of Florida and another from the federal government.

Small government is for suckers.

Simmons’ candidacy likely appeals to NRCC operatives who may be inclined to overlook his rather bland, dull, and prematurely aged look in light of his hefty bank account (Simmons is a multimillionaire, by the way).

As it happens, I like a good Republican, particularly of the Jeb Bush type. Every year, I support about as many Republicans as Democrats.

However, can Simmons’ compassionate voting record withstand a bruising primary campaign likely to favor conservatives?

In 2014, the Florida Legislature did something I thought impossible: It granted in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Simmons was an unapologetic “yes” vote. That will make it tougher for Murphy to attack Simmons as anti-immigrant, but harder for Simmons to survive his primary.

Similarly, Simmons backed Medicaid expansion in the Senate — effectively enlarging and entrenching Obamacare — a move that’s unlikely to endear him to conservatives but may insulate him from Murphy’s attacks.

While I think the personal contrast between the 30-something Murphy and the 60-something Simmons couldn’t be starker, policy similarities offer Simmons a fighting chance — if he can make it out of the GOP primary.

OK, enough politics, I’m back to an exciting committee meeting with your elected leaders debating whether the University of Moscow can have a vanity license plate.

Florence Snyder: Whether Adam Putnam likes it or not, it’s still OK to tell the truth

If Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is serious about running for governor, he’s going to have to dial down the #Stupid in his own office.

The Baron of Bartow went full #FloridaMan on Ocheesee Creamery, a family-owned dairy farm an hour’s drive and a world away from what former Gov. Jeb Bush derisively — and correctly — referred to as “Mount Tallahassee.” The Wesselhoefts are central casting’s idea of decent, hard-working people being run out of business by “regulators” running wild. They dote on their small herd of Jersey cows like the Donald dotes on Ivanka.

Visitors to the Creamery’s website learn that the “Jersey girls” are “an intelligent cow breed, and we enjoy being around them because they are known for their calm, gentle and docile nature.”

The “plush green grass and open fields of fresh air and sunlight” at Ocheesee would make an ideal backdrop for those ubiquitous FreshFromFlorida commercials. Instead, Putnam and his lawyers at the firm of Orwell, Kafka and ? and the Mysterians are in their fifth year of spending public funds to force the Wesselhoefts to add vitamin A to their skim milk, or add the word “imitation” to their skim milk labels.

Yesterday, it was Putnam’s turn to get creamed.

A panel of Reagan, Bush, and Obama appointees to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals circled the constitutional wagons around strict construction and decided that it is not deceptive to refer to skim milk as skim milk.

Nobody claimed otherwise before Putnam was elected as the state’s agricultural regulator-in-chief. His jihad on Jerseys has attracted embarrassing international attention, including the No. 4 slot on an April Fools’ Day roundup of “stories you thought were pranks but are in fact genuine.”

Mary Lou Wesselhoeft suspects that Putnam and his Label Police are carrying water, currying favor, and otherwise doing the bidding of bigger, richer, more politically connected dairymen. At some point, he’s going to have to explain to the rest of us why she’s wrong.

Senate committee recommends Glenn Sutphin for Veteran Affairs director

The Senate Committee on Military and Veteran’s Affairs, Space and Domestic Security recommended Glenn W. Sutphin, Jr. as the executive director of Florida’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs Tuesday.

Sutphin, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott and a retired, was voted to his post unanimously by the committee.

He joined the military June 6, 1969, serving 30 years in the U.S. Army. His family has history of military service. Having served under Gov. Jeb Bush, he helped to foster an environment in Florida for veterans to be welcome, he said at the committee hearing.

“One of my jobs was to get units ready, get them out the door, the wounded back and unfortunately those who we had lost – try to get them back to their families, and get them taken care of,” he told the committee Tuesday. “All my life I’ve either lead troops, trained troops or cared for their families.”

His ethos in his military service, he said, consisted of these three things:  No mission was to be refused; no was not an answer; and failure was not an option.

In Tampa, potential CFO candidate Jeremy Ring tells his story

Broward Democrat Jeremy Ring isn’t officially a candidate for Chief Financial Officer, but he talked the part during a stop in Tampa on Friday.

Speaking at the Oxford Exchange as part of the Cafe Con Tampa weekly event, the former Yahoo executive introduced himself to the audience by humble-bragging about his private sector background, describing himself as the first salesman for the internet search engine company when he started there as a 24-year-old (he’s 46 now).

As proud as he was of his private sector career, Ring was self-deprecating when it came to his knowledge about politics when he decided to first run for the state Senate in 2006.

“I had never been to Tallahassee,” he says. “I barely knew that Jeb Bush was Governor of Florida. When I lived in Silicon Valley, Nancy Pelosi was my Congresswoman – I never heard of her (actually, Pelosi represents San Francisco, an hour north of Silicon Valley, which is located in Santa Clara County). All true. I was the least experienced candidate in the history of the state of Florida.”

The meat of his message is on making Florida an innovative economy, a theme he campaigned on during his first run for office a decade ago. And he’s produced results.

In 2008, he helped create theFlorida Growth Fund, which invests in state and local pension funds involving technology and high-growth businesses with a significant presence in the state, and the Florida Opportunity Fund, a multimillion-dollar program that directs investments to high-performing funds committed to seed early stage businesses.

Ring says that Florida has one of the most complete innovation “ecosystems” in the country, not that it’s something that many lawmakers know or understand.

“Most elected officials in Tallahassee will inspire you instead of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, they’ll inspire you to be the next homebuilder or land use attorneys,” he said. “The biggest thing that we’re lacking in this state to build an innovation economy is not the pieces. The pieces exist. It’s the culture. We don’t have the culture.”

Ring’s legislative record shows that he is definitely unorthodox compared to his Tallahassee colleagues. Last year he sponsored a bill that would make computer coding a foreign language option, an idea he received from his 14-year-old son. The bill failed, though St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring it again this year (Brandes and Tampa Republican Representative Jamie Grant were singled out by Ring as understanding innovation).

Ring is adamant that the worst thing the state could do was to “starve our universities,” and he was critical of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s new offensive scrutinizing state university foundations. And he said that Florida cannot afford to freeze college tuition.

He tends to think that lawmakers (and the press) are in a bubble in regards to the general public’s attention span. In describing the uproar over former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli pulling the House out of Session days before it was scheduled to end (only to have to come back in a special session), he says ,”Not a single person called my office caring about that. It just wasn’t relevant to their lives.”

Acknowledging that it’s like a cliche, but Ring describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. And he is coldly realistic about his chances of success in capturing the CFO seat next year.

It would require raising an “incredible amount of money,” having a solid campaign team and essentially ignoring the Florida Democratic Party. The bigger challenge, he said, is that most Floridians don’t give a hoot about the CFO race, and that part of the campaign will be out of his control.

“What’s the Governor’s race going to look like?” he asked. “Is Donald Trump at one percent or 99 percent?”

Though he said he’s confident of raising substantial money both inside and outside of Florida and having a strong campaign team, “If Adam Putnam is leading the Governor’s race by 10 points, then no, but if John Morgan is leading the Governor’s race by 10 points, then a Democrat’s probably going to win.”

Federal judges’ lifetime tenure for good reason; Tallahassee should take note

There is a profound reason why the Founders gave life tenure to federal judges, subject only to impeachment for bad behavior. As Alexander Hamilton explained it in The Federalist No. 78:

“In a monarchy, it is an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince; in a Republic, it is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body…”

Judges subject to the whims of a president or the Congress to keep their jobs would be worthless. So would the Constitution.

The founding wisdom has been confirmed time and again, most famously when the Supreme Court ruled that Richard Nixon was not above the law, and most recently Thursday, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Donald Trump is not above it either.

Although the effect is only that Trump’s immigration decree remains on hold while the court fully considers his appeal of the District Judge’s order suspending it, the three-judge appellate panel made an enormously important point.

Trump’s lawyers had argued, as the court put it, that his “decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.” The regime had also claimed, the court said, that “it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one.” (Emphasis supplied)

A president in office less than three weeks was asserting the powers of a dictator.

“There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy,” the court said.

I hope they’re paying attention in Tallahassee, where some legislators seem to think they too are above the constitution and are trying to take down the state courts that sometimes disagree.

The current attack is led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. A constitutional amendment (HJR 1), sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, would prohibit Supreme Court justices and justices of the five district courts of appeal from qualifying in retention elections after serving more than 12 years in the same office.

Why term-limit only those judges? Circuit and county court judges have vastly more power over the lives and property of citizens. But it’s the appellate courts that rule on the laws that legislators enact and the decisions governors make.

Corcoran, whose ambition to be governor is no secret, has declared that his nine appointees to the new Constitution Revision Commission must be committed to neutering the judiciary.

This concerns conservatives no less than liberals. Both sides warned a House subcommittee Thursday that, as one speaker put it, the first-in-the nation term limit would “insure that the best and bright rarely, if ever, apply” for appellate court appointments.

The subcommittee approved the measure 8-7, with only Republicans voting for it. However, the two Republicans voting no portend the lack of a supermajority to pass it on the House floor.

Although there’s no precise Senate companion, term-limit legislation assigned to three committees there is in several ways worse. No one could be appointed to an appellate bench who is under 50 and it would restrict Supreme Court appointees to candidates who had been judges for at least one year.

That would have ruled out such widely-esteemed lawyers as Justice Raoul G. Cantero III (2002-2008) who was 41 when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2002 and, Justice Charles T. Wells (1994-2009). None of three significant justices in the 1950s, Steven C. O’Connell, B. Campbell Thornal, and E. Harris Drew, had previously been a judge. Nor had Attorney General Richard Ervin when Gov. Farris Bryant appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1964.

Conceptually, there is a form of term limit that would make sense: A single, nonrenewable term of 20 years, with the judge no longer having to face retention elections, and the judicial nominating commissions restored to the independence they had before Republican governors got total control over them. But what the legislators are proposing does nothing good.

As the subcommittee was told but apparently chose not to hear, there is already significant turnover in the judiciary, where judges must retire upon or soon after becoming 70. The Judicial Qualifications Commission has not been idle in getting bad ones kicked off the bench. (I’ll write more about that in a subsequent column.)

The Legislature’s attacks on the judiciary may not succeed, but the greater danger is that Constitution Revision commission, which can send amendments directly to the 2018 ballot. With the House speaker and Senate president each appointing nine members, Governor Rick Scott, another court-hater, naming 15 including the chairman; and the attorney general, Pam Bondi, as an automatic member, it will be the first of the three commissions since 1978 to be dominated by one party’s appointees and, likely, hostile to the courts at the outset. The three members whom Chief Justice Jorge Labarga named next week will have the fight of their lives to protect the courts from becoming subverted by the governor and legislature.

Labarga’s three are well suited for their mission.

Hank Coxe of Jacksonville is a former Florida Bar president and has served on the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The CRC will need to listen to him on that subject.

Robert Martinez, of Miami, is highly regarded as the former U.S. attorney there. “In addition to being a good person and excellent lawyer, with thoughtful and humane values, Bob is one of the most courtly and well-mannered people I know,” a former assistant told me.

Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa lawyer who served in both houses of the Legislature, can tell the CRC firsthand what happens when the courts and law don’t respect people’s rights. As a student in the 1950s, she took part in lunch counter sit-ins at Tallahassee and was jailed for trying to desegregate movie theaters there.

Scott, Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron have yet to make their CRC appointments. Let them follow Labarga’s examples of integrity, experience and wisdom. One can always hope.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Rick Scott heading to Argentina for trade mission

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is heading off to Argentina for another trade mission.

Scott is scheduled to take a five-day trip in late April to Buenos Aires.

This is Scott’s 13th trip abroad since he became governor in January 2011. Former Gov. Jeb Bush took 16 trade missions during his eight years in office.

Scott has defended the trips as a way to open doors for Florida-based companies seeking business abroad. The Republican governor has made job creation the main focus during his time in office.

He has taken previous economic development trips to the South American countries of Brazil, Colombia and Chile, as well as Japan, Israel, England, France, Spain, Canada and Panama.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Officials, others respond to school vouchers case

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision not to take up a contentious school vouchers lawsuit continued to garner reaction throughout Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, tweeted, “Congrats to the Florida families who have a clear path toward more opportunity due to #SchoolChoice w/ today’s FL Supreme Court decision!”

Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, in a statement, called the move “a blow to our state’s Constitutional promise of  ‘a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.’ ”

“We can all agree that the zip code of a child’s birth should not be a determining factor in their access to a high quality public education,” she said. “However, for almost 20 years now, since the passage of Gov. Jeb Bush’s original unconstitutional voucher system, Florida has diverted billions of taxpayer dollars away from our public schools in a misguided attempt at outsourcing our children’s education to for-profit corporations and fly-by-night profiteers.

“Instead, these resources should have been spent improving our neighborhood schools, focusing on options that we know have a proven success rate and a genuine benefit to the public they are meant to serve, such as the community schools model,” she added. “Unfortunately, some continue to view our children as a commodity from which every ounce of profit should be squeezed.

“Even with today’s setback, House Democrats will continue to fight on behalf of the thousands of parents and students who have been failed by legislative leaders more intent on serving an ideology of boundless privatization rather than a commitment to the educational well-being of our children.”

Bush, the president and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), the school reform group he founded, said the decision is “a powerful reminder to entrenched special interests that when policymakers work hand-in-hand with Florida’s families, students win.”

“It is my hope that opponents of Florida’s efforts to help our most vulnerable students will stop impeding successful reforms and join us in ensuring all students have access to excellent educational options,” he said.

Cruz’s counterpart, Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the court’s order “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.”

“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,” he said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was “pleased that the lower court’s decision will stand, and that this important program will continue to provide educational opportunities for children of families that have limited financial resources.

“Today is a great victory for our children,” she said in a statement.

Americans for Prosperity-Florida (AFP-FL), the state’s pro-free market organization, called Wednesday “a day to celebrate.”

“Our childrens’ future looks brighter than ever,” AFP-FL state director Chris Hudson said in an email. “Last year, the legislature enacted several common sense reforms to improve access to a quality education. Today’s ruling furthers the initiative to ensure that parents can make the best decisions for their children.”

Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic M. Calabro said the program “provide(s) lower income families, most of whom are minorities, the opportunities to receive a high quality education and are funded through donations from businesses across the state.”

“Educating our children, particularly those who do not have the same opportunities as others, is crucial in ensuring that they can go on to college, earn a degree and begin a career that offers them prosperity and success,” Calabro said in a statement. “…With the lawsuit officially over, the state does not have to continue to spend taxpayer dollars on what could have been an expensive battle at the Supreme Court.”

Cesar Grajales, Florida Coalitions Director of The LIBRE Initiative, a project of Americans for Prosperity focused on the Hispanic community, said the court “was right to defend the needs of Florida students by dismissing the attacks from unions.”

“School choice is a powerful tool to ensure that our community has the best access to education possible,” Grajales said. “…I am looking forward to working with the Florida legislature to continue expanding reforms that ensure parents and students can achieve their educational goals.”

classroom school vouchers

Teachers’ union: “Who can challenge the Legislature on voucher program?”

The Florida Education Association (FEA) vented its “frustration” Wednesday after the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up a suit challenging the constitutionality of what’s been called “the nation’s largest private school choice program.”

The court decided not to hear a challenge to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2001, though – as one former judge noted – its order “doesn’t say (it) lacks jurisdiction.” (Main story here.)

That had Joanne McCall, the statewide teachers’ union’s president and the lead plaintiff in the case, asking, Who can pursue a case? A trial court and the 1st District Court of Appeal had previously ruled the matter could not go forward.

“This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, doesn’t answer that question,” she said in a statement. “We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.”

Though the Supreme Court put an end to this case, first filed in 2014, the challenge now for voucher opponents is to find one or more plaintiffs who do have the legal standing to successfully press a complaint.

At issue was money going toward religious schools, and whether “taxpayers,” like McCall, could challenge “indirect state subsidies” paying for parochial school tuitions.

“We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures,” McCall added. “This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program.”

It “relies on private, voluntary donations—not public dollars,” the state’s brief on the jurisdictional question said. “And the program provides tax credits to donors—not schools or students.”

“At bottom, petitioners’ assertion of taxpayer standing is predicated on the assumption that this case involves the unlawful ‘use of public funds,’ ” the state’s brief said. “As the trial court and the (appellate court) correctly concluded, that position is flatly at odds with the how the Scholarship Program actually operates, and misconstrues the plain language of Florida’s Constitution.”

In other words, “the Legislature’s carefully crafted policy choice does not suffice to establish a concrete, particularized injury” to those that sued, including the FEA, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP’s Florida State Conference.

On the other hand, the FEA’s brief said the vouchers scheme “diverts funds from the public (treasury) to subsidize the costs for certain Florida children to attend private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are sectarian.”

“(N)othing in the law prohibits these schools from engaging in religious discrimination or mandating that their students participate in religious instruction and religious exercise,” according to the brief.

It said the high court should “accept jurisdiction … because the decision not only undermines the law of taxpayer standing, but it effectively holds the Scholarship Program – and any other government program similarly funded by a targeted tax credit rather than direct appropriations – to be immune from challenge.”

Simone Marstiller, a retired judge of the 1st District and now a lawyer in private practice, said appellate Judge Lori S. Rowe‘s decision “beautifully lays out exactly why” the high court turned the case down.

“Bottom line: The union and others simply cannot show any ‘injury’ from the Legislature’s use of tax credits to fund the scholarship program,” said Marstiller, who also held many positions under Gov. Jeb Bush, including secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

“This is not a situation in which tax revenues are being diverted away from the public school system in favor of private schools, including religious schools,” she said. “So, not only is there no exercise of the Legislature’s spending power at issue, no constitutional provisions are implicated.”

The FEA did not immediately say what further legal plans it had regarding the vouchers program.

Supreme Court throws out school vouchers case

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 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 organizationhe 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. 

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