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Access Vs. Choice Part Of Dispute Over Tax Credit Scholarship Program


A constitutional challenge to Florida's de-facto school voucher program has supporters worried it could end if the plaintiffs prevail.

“What do we want? School Choice, when do we want it now!"

This has become the call of pro-school choice advocates in the constant rallies to promote the Florida’s various educational options.  Now one of the options--the popular tax scholarship program used to send low income students to private schools-- is facing a legal challenge. Advocates like Rabbi Moshe Matz of Agudath Israel of Florida in Miami, oppose the move.

“I think it’s a shameful attempt to scare parents away from being able to exercise their right to choose the school that best matches their child’s needs," he said during a hastily called press conference outside the Tallahassee headquarters of the Florida Education Association, the state teacher's union. "This program should be lauded and praised, and expanded, not litigated.”

Groups including the FEA, the Florida NAACP, the Florida School Board Association and the Florida League of Women Voters have jointly filed a lawsuit asking the court to get rid of the program. 

“The fact is, this has become an industry," says Attorney Ron Meyer who is representing the groups. He believes the state has overreached with the tax scholarships. 'It’s a money-maker for scholarship funding organizations and it’s a program that we think is in dereliction of the constitutional requirements. So, it reached a tipping point. And now is the time.”

The Florida legislature increased income eligibility for the scholarships earlier this year, making more middle income families eligible for the program. The latest move is part of a steady expansion of the tax scholarship system in recent years. The legislature created it in 2001. The original school voucher program which used public dollars to fund private school scholarships, was declared unconstitutional by the courts. The difference between it and the tax credit program, is that businesses get a break on their taxes if they donate to the various organizations that supply scholarships.

One of the main arguments against the program is that it siphons money that could have gone to public schools. Many of the private schools that benefit from the tax scholarship are religious in nature, and critics say the program skirts the line on Florida’s ban on sending public money to religious groups. But there’s a deeper issue at work in the debate over the program—and it’s one that FEA Vice President Joanne McCall taps in to.

“We have to stop the voucher system, and make them fund public schools appropriately so we can make sure all our schools are successful schools and all our students can achieve," she says. "People have a choice. If they want they can put their kids in private schools. That’s their right. But it’s not the public’s responsibility.”

People have the choice to send their children to private schools, public schools, charter schools, or even home school if they chose to, and if the tax scholarship were to be declared unconstitutional and stop—the choice would still be there. But as Margaret Franklin, head of the private Franklin Academy in Tallahassee points out, choice, and the means to act on that choice, are separate things.

“Lower economic students, they don’t have a choice, because these things cost money. You can’t go to any private school for free.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs say the state has effectively created two unequal and parallel educational systems, where teachers and students operate under different rules.  Private schools don’t have to use state teaching standards or administer state exams, teachers are evaluated and paid differently.  Florida’s constitution mandates a uniform system of public education.

There are at least two other lawsuits pending in the courts against the tax scholarship program, including a broader suit recently joined by the  League of Women Voters alleging  the state isn’t properly funding its public schools.