By Jessica Bakeman | Politico Florida
Published: Dec. 14, 2015
If Florida’s teachers union is successful in its challenge of the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, black and Hispanic children will suffer, a national education advocacy group argued in an amicus brief on Monday.
The Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national nonprofit advocacy group representing black educators and civil rights activists, filed the brief with the First District Court of Appeal, where the Florida Education Association has appealed a lower court’s decision in its 2014 lawsuit targeting the tax-credit scholarship program. Under the program, corporations get a 100 percent credit for donations to nonprofits that grant scholarships to help low-income students attend private schools.
“The insufficiency of Appellants’ alleged injury is highlighted when contrasted with the harm Appellants threaten to visit upon low-income, mostly Black and Hispanic students if their complaint prevails,” the advocacy group wrote in the brief. “The termination of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program would disrupt the education of almost 80,000 students. These scholarship students are from Florida’s neediest families — and research reveals that the vast majority of these students were struggling academically in the public school system. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program offers these students the opportunity for a good education.”
FEA’s appeal follows Leon County Circuit Court judge George Reynolds’ May ruling that the union does not have legal standing to challenge the scholarship program, because it’s funded with private donations rather than tax dollars collected and appropriated by the state. The union, like others around the country, has argued the program diverts dollars from the public school system to private schools, some of which offer religious instruction.
Reynolds made a similar ruling last week in another, larger lawsuit from advocacy groups Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now. Those groups also plan to appeal his ruling.
A spokesman for FEA did not immediately return a request for comment.
Read the amicus brief here: http://bit.ly/1RNHgPL
The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) – one of America’s preeminent nonprofit education advocacy organizations – today filed an amicus brief with Florida’s First District Court of Appeal to urge appellate judges to consider the important role parental choice is playing in the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children. The filing came as part of the comprehensive effort by the Save Our Scholarships Coalition to protect Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship from a challenge being appealed by the Florida Education Association (FEA).
I’m not the only student pursuing a master’s degree at the University of South Florida this fall, but given how much I struggled in elementary school, I may be one of the more improbable ones.
For me, the difference-maker was a school choice scholarship. It gave me a fresh start and an opportunity to try out a different school that fit me like a glove, just like it has done for thousands of other students over the past 13 years.
Yet, despite all the good it has done in Florida, the tax credit scholarship program is in jeopardy because of the Florida teachers union.
The union filed a lawsuit against the program a year ago last week, and it has decided to continue it even though a Tallahassee judge dismissed the case in May, saying it couldn’t prove the scholarship harms public schools.
The union’s appeal this summer means 78,000 low-income kids and their parents, including about 8,000 from the Tampa Bay area, will continue to be worried sick. They fear they will be kicked out of schools they love and sent back to schools where many of them were doing terribly.
I know how tragic that would be. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had been held back twice. My report cards were full of D’s and F’s, and I took out my frustration by fighting with other kids.
The truth is, I was destined to drop out.
But then, thanks to the scholarship, everything changed.
When I reached sixth grade, my godmother enrolled me in a different school, a private school in Jacksonville called Esprit de Corps Center for Learning. She used the scholarship to pay tuition.
The atmosphere at my new school was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was expected to make honor roll, and everybody celebrated when, eventually, I did. People believed I could do it, so I started believing it, too. Learning became fun. Knowledge became a gift.
In the end, I became a good kind of statistic — the first in my immediate family to go to college, and the first to earn a bachelor’s degree. . . .
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Nearly a year into a lawsuit to evict 78,000 poor, mostly minority schoolchildren from their schools, we tend to forget that these students aren’t the only ones who will suffer if the teachers union wins. Perversely, so will public school districts.
They’ll get nailed in the pocketbook.
The financial impact is undeniable. After adding 38,469 new students last year, Florida public schools are projected to grow by another 100,000 over the next five. Now, imagine returning 78,000 scholarship students in one fell swoop — students who are disproportionately black, Hispanic and urban. Some 187 ZIP codes across the state contain at least 100 scholarship students each, 16 have more than 500 each, two side-by-side ZIP codes in west Orlando have more than 1,600 combined.
Building new schools to handle all these scholarship children would cost $2.6 billion. Even if school districts had enough spare room to absorb half these students in existing classrooms, the tab would exceed $1.3 billion. …
Gary Chartrand is former chairman of the Florida Board of Education.
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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FRANK PETERMAN, JR.
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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