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Education

Appeals Court Considers Tax Credit Scholarship Program

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Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is back in the courts.

The state’s largest teachers’ union is challenging a tax credit scholarship program that helps low income students go to private schools. When businesses donate to the Step Up For Students Program, they get a dollar for dollar tax break. The Florida Education Association, backed by the Florida League of Women Voters, and the NAACP, calls the program unconstitutional. The First District Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Tuesday about whether to take up the case. FEA attorney Lynn Hearn argues the program diverts would-be tax dollars away from public use, and into private schools.

“If you look at the statute that creates this program, it says absolutely clearly that they have the Legislature has the authority to determine which items are subject to tax and which items are exempt from tax. And so they are absolutely exercising their taxing authority in creating this program,” she said.

Attorney for the state Rachel Nordby calls the case a Pandora’s box, opening the floodgates for challenges to other tax credits.

"Going forward, if you accept their approach, any plaintiff with any challenge, regardless of how tenuous the connection to taxing and spending, and regardless of the constitutional basis of the challenge, would have standing without having to establish a special injury first,” she said.

Supporters believe all families should be able to choose a better education, not just wealthy families. A coalition of African American pastors from across the state stand in support of the program, including Reverend R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

“If the president and governors and senators and pastors and teachers and business folk can send their kids to the best schools, why can’t poor people send their kids to the school of choice?” he asked.

But critics argue, if the tax credits were public dollars, students wouldn’t be stuck in underperforming schools. Joanne McCall is the president of the FEA, and the plaintiff in the case.

“It was the tune of $300 million dollars back then when we filed the suit, it is more at this particular point and juncture now. The school is still functioning and those costs are still there, so when you pull students out and extract that kind of money that is a significant harm to the rest of the students,” she said.

Last year a Leon County Circuit Judge threw out the case, saying the union had no legal standing to challenge the program. It remains to be seen if the appeals court agrees.