Month: May 2015

Last week Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds dismissed a lawsuit threatening the private school scholarships of nearly 70,000 low-income children in Florida. I was heartened by the decision, as should all Floridians.

The judge ruled the teachers union and school boards association lacked “standing” — or the legal right — to sue the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship because their claim that private school scholarships harm public schools and students was merely “speculative.”

This decision is in line with my own opinion that this program is just one option for low-income children to choose from in our increasingly diverse menu of K-12 programs.

Teachers union officials have previously vowed to fight the case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. I hope that they will reconsider that conviction and end their effort to evict 70,000 poor children from their schools. …

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Tampa Bay Times
Tuesday, May 26, 2015 2:29pm

Throughout my public career — as a City Council member, state representative and secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice — I worked to help children follow a path to success in life and, in particular, to restore hope for young black men. That explains the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, which I sponsored in 2006 as a legislator, and my strong support for public education as a linchpin for a child’s overall success.

The education facts are painfully clear. In Pinellas County last year, only 28 percent of black students read at grade level, and only 26 percent performed math at grade level. The latest Schott Foundation report is numbing, placing the graduation rate for black males in the county at 28 percent.

This is the kind of social crisis that should bring us all together, cause us to roll up our sleeves and pitch in to help. So it is good news that a circuit judge in Tallahassee recently tossed out a constitutional challenge to an education option that is helping 70,000 of Florida’s most underprivileged students — a disproportionate percentage of whom are black.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is helping 2,621 poor children mostly of color to attend 74 private schools in Pinellas this year, is not a substitute for the kind of great public schools that I have spent my life supporting. But it deserves a seat at the public education table, and let’s hope the legal challengers to this program will listen to what the judge has had to say.

From where I sit, this is not a competition, and this scholarship is not an attack on traditional public schools. The truth is that different students learn in different ways, and there is no reason we can’t offer them a range of learning options that includes magnet and fundamental schools, online courses, dual enrollment, charter schools — and even scholarships to private schools for those who can’t afford tuition. …

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Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds ruled this week that Florida’s teachers unions and public schools don’t have standing to question whether a voucher program violates the state’s constitution.

Under the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the state offers a dollar-to-dollar tax credit to businesses if they choose to donate to nonprofit entities that help pay for children to attend private schools.

In other words, under the program the state does indeed receive less tax money, but there is no guarantee that even if the Legislature had received that money it would go to public schools. Lawmakers could just as easily spend that money on law enforcement or the environment if they had it to spend.

Reynolds ruled that since the plaintiffs failed to prove they lost out on money that should have gone to schools they did not have standing to sue.

That’s not a clear constitutional win for either side, but it will allow the program to exist at least until the next challenge. …

… Reynolds’ ruling is good news for 70,000 Florida students and their parents who decided the best choice was something outside of their local public school. Voucher supporters say more than 70 percent of these students are minorities, and their average family income is 5 percent above the poverty level. They add that many of these students struggled in public schools. …

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Published: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 12:01 a.m.

Over the past 14 years, nearly 500,000 low- income children in Florida have had a chance at a better education because someone was willing to invest in them. Individuals, foundations and companies, including some of America’s corporate elite, provided the fiscal underpinning for a sounder future for them via the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program — through which donors help pay tuition at a private school for these underprivileged children in exchange for a tax break.

Until Monday, it seemed the future of that program may be in doubt. The state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and the Florida School Boards Association joined in a lawsuit last August that sought to have the program declared unconstitutional. The claim was that the Tax Credit Scholarship initiative diverted much-needed state financial resources to religious schools — a no-no under the state Constitution.

In a four-page ruling issued Monday, however, Circuit Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee rejected that assertion, and the lawsuit itself.

Reynolds dismissed the case on the grounds that the Legislature didn’t actually divvy up tax money. In short, Reynolds declared, because the scholarships involve tax breaks — worth a total of $358 million this year — and not appropriating money that had been collected, lawmakers never decided how the funds would be spent. Along that line, the judge also said the plaintiffs could not prove the program had hurt them. Labeling such arguments “speculative,” the judge found no proof to support their claim that the tax proceeds that went uncollected would have been targeted for public education, or that the quality of public education suffered because of the tax credits.

According to the state Department of Education only 24 percent of the 69,846 students enrolled as of February — including 2,072 in Polk County — are white. Step Up for Students, one of the two groups approved by the state to manage this program, reports that 54 percent come from single-parent homes, with an average household income of $24,138 a year, or just 5 percent above the poverty level for a family of four. They also tend to be low performers academically.

Looked at from another angle, based on Step Up’s data, the scholarships educate these children at about three-quarters the cost of what public schools do, plus their presence saves the public education system more than $1.1 billion in new school construction, and subtracts students who might drag down standardized test scores.

In essence, impoverished, less academically gifted minority children who typically lack the support of a nuclear family are provided the same opportunity that many critics think is set aside only for privileged white children. Reynolds made the right decision for current students, and those who will follow them, and hopefully the union, the school boards and others who backed their allegations will now give up this misguided fight.

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Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times Staff Writer

Monday, May 18, 2015 4:43pm

Opponents of a controversial program that directs would-be tax dollars to private schools suffered a setback Monday as a Leon County judge threw out a legal challenge to its constitutionality.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds III ruled that the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association and other plaintiffs had no legal standing to bring the case against the nation’s largest private school choice program. His rationale: The way the program is funded, often referred to as a voucher system, doesn’t use government vouchers at all.

Rather, Reynolds stated, the multimillion-dollar program gets its income from corporations that receive tax credits for giving money to an outside organization that provides scholarships to lower-income students. Those students — about 70,000 of them and growing — then attend private schools, most of them religious.

In other words, it’s not state money.

“In this case, plaintiffs object to tax credits extended to third parties,” the judge wrote. “Because plaintiffs do not challenge a program funded by legislative appropriations, plaintiffs do not have taxpayer standing to bring this action.”

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