TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's main teacher union and a teacher filed a lawsuit Wednesday aimed at blocking a significant expansion of the state's main private school voucher program.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed the expansion on the final day of the session after previous efforts to push the legislation had been defeated.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in a Leon County Circuit Court does not target the existing $300 million program that served nearly 60,000 families last year. Instead the legal challenge contends that when state legislators passed the expansion they violated a requirement in the state constitution that bills can cover only one subject.
The voucher expansion was added to an unrelated education bill because a day earlier a stand-alone measure had failed to win enough votes in the Florida Senate.
"This was a sneaky way for the legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed," said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall.
Tom Faasse, the Lee County social studies teacher whose name is on the lawsuit, said he would use the passage of the bill as an example to his American government class of someone not following "the rules" laid out in the constitution.
Republican legislative leaders and groups supporting the program blasted the FEA because the new law also expands services to disabled children through the creation of "personal learning scholarship accounts." These accounts would allow parents of children with disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome to get services worth $10,000 a year.
"This is a new low for the FEA," said Patricia Levesque, head of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. "It is shameful that they would spend teachers' hard-earned dollars to block opportunities for our most vulnerable students."
Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando and who is in line to become the next Senate president, not only criticized the lawsuit in a statement but pledged to do even more once he assumes power later this year.
"We will empower parents and children with unique abilities as long as I am in the process," said Gardiner, who has a child with Down syndrome. "The teacher's union may have given up on these children, but I have not."
McCall defended the lawsuit by saying the union was doing what was right for "all students" in the public school system.
Florida currently allows a business to receive tax credits if it donates money to organizations that provide private school vouchers to low-income families.
Currently the program is limited to families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But the bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott would let middle-income families receive partial vouchers starting in 2016. The law also removes a requirement that students in grades 6 through 12 had to attend a public school the prior year in order to be eligible.
State data shows that more than 80 percent of the schools participating in the current program are religious.
Jon East, a spokesman for Step Up for Students, the main group handing out the vouchers, said an estimated 67,000 families were expected to receive scholarships this year, bringing the cost of the program to nearly $358 million. But he said that the organization has received roughly 120,000 applications and that it was unlikely that those who receive scholarships this year would be able to take advantage of the eligibility changes.
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