Teachers union takes on Florida school choice law

A lawsuit from Florida teachers would eliminate school choice for many low-income students and effectively kill a program to help students with autism and other special needs.

The lawsuit would wipe out the state’s new education savings account program and an expansion to the tax-credit scholarship program.

The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs argue lawmakers did not follow proper procedure in passing the school choice law this year, but their legal argument makes no claim that the programs themselves are unconstitutional. Even if the FEA is successful, lawmakers could pass the same programs next session, following a different procedure.

“This litigation will do absolutely nothing to improve the challenges facing children with disabilities in our state,” state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a statement.

“It will do nothing to offer new educational pathways for students from low-income families. It will do nothing to empower parents to seek solutions and opportunities that best fit the unique needs of their child.

“Instead, in the name of Florida teachers, this litigation will rob children with disabilities and children from low-income families of a chance to participate in educational and developmental experiences that maximize their own unique abilities and opportunities for success.”

Through a savings program, parents of students with certain disabilities — Down Syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy, for example — can receive in a limited-use account, comprising 90 percent of the money the state would spend on their education in the public school system. Parents can spend the money on a variety of educational expenses, including various therapies, private school tuition, tutoring and college.

With the money the state has set aside for the program, about 1,800 students could participate, according to estimates from Step Up for Students, the nonprofit administering the scholarships. Parents may begin applying July 18

Parents testified in favor of the program while lawmakers were considering it. Some said the public school system wasn’t meeting their children’s needs; others said necessary therapies were prohibitively expensive and the ESAs would help.

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Ron Meyer, attorney for the FEA, called the personalized learning accounts “a collateral casualty” in the lawsuit. Plaintiffs are more concerned with the expansion of the tax-credit scholarship program — which has proven popular among Florida families since it launched in 2001 — as well as the lawmaking procedure.

Florida’s constitution includes a prohibition on rolling too wide a variety of issues into a single bill. If legislators want to make laws regarding, say, minimum wage and health care, they must file separate bills. Because the tax-credit scholarship expansion and savings program were passed in the same bill, the teachers union argues, the bill should not have been allowed.

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By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Watchdog

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