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Families With Disabled Kids Fire Back Against Teacher's Union Lawsuit Over New Program

Three moms with disabled children stand with former state Sen. Al Lawson and Goldwater Institute Attorney Clint Bolick

Six Florida families with disabled children want to block a lawsuit challenging the state’s newest voucher program.  They say a move by the state teacher’s union to invalidate a broader bill on educational choice options, is bad policy.

A few weeks ago the Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, announced it was suing the state over SB 850—which allowed an expansion of the state’s corporate tax scholarship or school voucher program. The union has long been opposed to vouchers. It believes the program uses dollars that would otherwise be sent to the state, to give to private groups. And FEA attorney Ron Meyer says the way the legislature adopted the expansion—by attaching it at the last minute to a more popular program that sets up financial accounts for disabled students—violated state law:

“It’s interesting even the House’s final analysis...points out in multiple places where these different provisions are not germane, are not reasonably connected to one another or the main purpose of the bill," Meyer said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

Thursday, before a group of reporters, six families of disabled children who stand to benefit from the new account programs, announced they would intervene in the lawsuit to defend the accounts. The families are being led in part by the Goldwater Institute—an Arizona think tank founded by former U.S. Senator and Presidential Candidate, Barry Goldwater. The Goldwater Institute’s attorney is Clint Bolick.

“I would describe it as a program that was made part of an omnibus education reform bill. And these parents, are they in jeopardy of losing these opportunities? No question about it," Bolick says.

School choice supporters are trying to paint the teacher’s union as being against families with disabled children. In Arizona, the Goldwater Institute is challenging the way that state approved a Medicaid Expansion under the federal health law and claims that passage violated Arizona’s constitution. But in an exchange with reporters, Bolick struggled to explain why the institute’s action in Arizona, don’t apply in Florida since both lawsuits--theirs and the FEA’s-- challenge procedure, not policy. 

“The point is, the Goldwater Institute protecting the rights of taxpayers is part of our mission. For the Florida Education Association...I think you’d search their website in vain to find if that’s part of their mission.”

Ashli McCall is a Florida teacher whose son is autistic. She’s hoping to use the new learning accounts to get him more one-on-one teaching time, and behavioral and occupational therapy. She says at times, her family is forced to choose between health and education needs. And she’s willing to stand with the state to defend the new accounts, and the less popular voucher expansion that came with it.   

“I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it," she says.

At stake for the six families intervening in the lawsuit, and the thousands of families with students who have disabilities is whether they’ll get to participate in the program, or not—if it gets struck down as a casualty of a larger war. 

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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