Crucial legal question confronts Florida's voucher program

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The fate of Florida’s signature private-school voucher program – which began when Jeb Bush was governor – could soon be decided by a circuit judge.

Opponents to the state’s tax credit scholarship program squared off for nearly two hours Monday against lawyers representing the state and parents of children enrolled in the program.

Judge George Reynolds must decide whether to throw out the lawsuit filed last year or let it proceed to a trial. He did not rule from the bench and gave each side 10 days to give him their final arguments in writing. The program now in place serves nearly 70,000 students from low-income families, many of whom attend religious schools.

Lawyers representing Gov. Rick Scott and the state argued that the groups who sued didn’t have the legal right or standing to file the lawsuit. The attorneys said the groups haven’t shown any proof that the program is harmful and said that it was speculation to assert that the hundreds of millions of dollars now spent on the program is being taken away from public schools.

“We have disgruntled taxpayers who don’t like the fact that the Legislature has made a choice,” said Jay Lefkowitz, an attorney representing parents who have intervened in the lawsuit.

But lawyers representing Florida’s teacher union, as well as other groups including the association that represents county school boards, argued the program diverts money because it means fewer students enrolling in public schools. A large chunk of money that is set aside for public schools is pegged to how many students show up.

Attorney Ron Meyer went so far as to label the program a “scheme” that amounts to money laundering to get around past court rulings that struck down one of the state’s other voucher program.

Reynolds gave few hints as to how he may rule as he peppered each side with questions, some of it at times involving arcane questions about tax law and the spending power of the Florida Legislature.

He suggested, however, that it may be hard for opponents to prove that legislators would have used the money now headed to private schools on public schools.

“You could do away with this program tomorrow morning and the budget for the school system might change not one iota,” Reynolds said.

Bush back in 1999 set up the first program that awarded vouchers to children attending low-performing schools. The state Supreme Court ultimately declared it unconstitutional, saying it violated a requirement that the state had a “paramount duty” to have a uniform and high quality system of “free public schools.” A lower court had also ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds it violated a provision that says no aid may be given by the state to religious institutions.

But Bush and the GOP-controlled Legislature created other voucher programs, including the tax-credit scholarship program that is the target of the lawsuit. It allows businesses to get credits on their state tax bills if they donate to an organization that hands out private-school vouchers to children in low-income families.

Since 2001, the Legislature has expanded the program several times, including this past year when it expanded the income eligibility standards. Starting in 2016, middle-income families may also qualify.

Andrea Wiggins, who gets help to send her five children to Resurrection Catholic in Lakeland, attended the court hearing with several of her children. She said she would be devastated if the court eventually struck down the tax credit scholarship program.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Gary Fineout


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