Category Archives for Legal issues

Victory: The fight against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is over; children prevail

By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF

On Jan. 19, 2016, 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program supporters, clad in yellow shirts, marched in Tallahassee urging the Florida teacher's union to drop the suit against the program.

On Jan. 19, 2016, 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program supporters, clad in yellow shirts, marched in Tallahassee urging the Florida teacher’s union to drop the suit against the program.

We have gratifying legal news to share. The Florida Supreme Court today rejected a final appeal, and the case against Florida’s 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship is officially over. Our students and parents won.

In 2014, the Florida Education Association and other groups challenged the program, arguing it steered money to private religious schools, and violated a provision in the state constitution that mandates a “uniform” public school system. The scholarships, they contended, were similar to school vouchers the high court struck down in 2006. But this time, the state prevailed, allowing tens of thousands of scholars to remain in the schools of their choice. The ruling was handing down early Wednesday, ending a long and tireless fight for Florida’s schoolchildren’s rights for education equality.

“Low-income parents and children in Florida have a great deal to celebrate today knowing that their access to school choice and a quality school will no longer be threatened,” John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children and Step Up For Students’ chairman and founder, said in a statement. “We would like to thank our coalition partners and allies in Florida who have worked tirelessly to defend the program and the children who rely on these life-changing scholarships. There should be no barrier preventing a child from reaching their full potential or receiving a world-class education, and we are thankful this meritless lawsuit has been resolved.”

Community and political leaders throughout the state have been applauding the decision, including Rev. R. B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, who helped lead the fight against the lawsuit. Said Holmes: “On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law.”

Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill added: “The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children. We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

We know these legal proceedings over the past two-and-a-half years have created some angst among our families and supporters, and we hope you, too, will celebrate this ruling. The scholarship this year is serving 98,000 deserving students, and we expect even greater things ahead.

Faith Manuel, who has had three children use the scholarship, including her first son who was born when she was a teenager and is a senior a the University of North Florida, was overjoyed by the news.

“Almost one year after our Historic March on Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III, three days after we celebrated Dr. King’s legacy, we have such a tremendous victory for the students in Florida,” said Manuel, who was a speaker during that rally. “My children’s ability to choose the school which worked for them has made all the difference in their individual success as students. I’m so thankful that this program will have the ability to continue to make a difference for Florida’s students.”

Read updates on today’s Florida Supreme Court ruling here from redefinED.

 

 

 

 

Tally Rally to #DropTheSuit draws more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from across the state

By LISA A. DAVIS

TALLAHASSEE – They came by bus, many traveling through the night, by personal vehicle and some even by plane. But what really drove them all on this mission Jan. 19 to Florida’s state capital was the same: to urge the Florida teachers’ union to drop the suit.

Florida Tax Credit scholars prepare to march during the #DropTheSuit Rally in Tallahassee Jan. 19.

Florida Tax Credit scholars prepare to march during the #DropTheSuit Rally in Tallahassee Jan. 19.

On the day after the world celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., his son, Martin Luther King III, led more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students, parents, educators and other supporters from Tallahassee’s Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, past the Florida Supreme Court and Capitol building to a stage set on Duval Street.

The first of about 200 buses pulled into the parking lot just after 7:30 a.m. with temperatures sitting in the mid-30s. Rally-goers were enthusiastic the moment they stepped off the buses. Wearing neon yellow shirts emblazoned with the words “#DropTheSuit,” the throngs of school choice supporters flooded the capital’s streets as they walked. Their message was clear.

“Drop the suit,” they chanted.

“What do we want?” crowd leaders screamed

“School choice!” the marchers shouted.

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

On Aug. 28, 2014, the Florida Education Association (FEA) and other groups sued the State of Florida seeking to end the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which this year, is serving nearly 78,000 economically disadvantaged, mostly minority children. The FEA contends the 15-year-old program is unconstitutional, saying state funds are being used for private religious schools. The program, however, is funded directly by corporations that received a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions to the program created by Florida lawmakers in 2001.

In May of 2015, a Leon Circuit Court judge threw out the case saying the plaintiffs have no standing to sue. The FEA appealed the case in the First District Court of Appeals on Aug. 21, 2015 where it still sits today. FEA President Joanne McCall has vowed to take the lawsuit all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Martin Luther King III was the keynote speaker during the event. He said the fight to keep the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program alive is a matter of justice.

Martin Luther King III was the keynote speaker during the event. He said the fight to keep the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program alive is a matter of justice.

“I just find it interesting that in our country we have the gall to debate about how our most precious resource, our children, are treated,” King III told the crowd during the rally. “It’s alright to debate strategy technique. It’s alright to debate what a curriculum might be. But how we have the gall to talk about that we can’t spend money on this. It costs too much. No one is saying that public education should not be funded. What is being said is that people and families need options. One option cannot work. “

Faith Manuel, whose three children have used the scholarship program at different times, spoke of how her younger two children got a solid educational foundation by attending private schools using the Step Up For Students income-based scholarship. Her daughter is currently doing well in a public school in Georgia where she’s now living with her father. He middle son graduates this spring and has been accepted to several universities and recently was awarded the MLK scholarship for the Daytona Beach area, and her eldest son, who used the tax-credit scholarship from middle school on, is now working toward becoming a teacher at the University of North Florida.

“School choice has worked for my family and continues to work for countless of other Florida families as is evident in this turnout,” Manuel said to cheers. “So, I urge the Florida teachers’ union and the other plaintiffs to open their hearts, put politics aside, and truly listen to the families who benefit from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It’s changing lives, and yes, in many cases, saving them. Please think of our kids.”

Jeannette Ruiz in Spanish told the story of her son Valentin Mendez and his struggle at his neighborhood school, where he was bullied and struggled. Now at La Progresiva Presbyterian School, he has flourished academically, skipped a grade and is on the road to success. He confidently translated his mother’s words on stage during the rally.

“Don’t destroy the children’s dreams,” Ruiz said.

Sally Noel and her son, Jannai Noel-Smith, 9, boarded the bus to Tallahassee at 12:30  the morning of the rally at their school, West Palm Beach Junior Academy. They arrived at 8 a.m.

“I don’t think I slept,” Noel said between leading cheers and chants to support the scholarship.

Noel made the journey to help convince the teachers’ union to drop the suit.

“A lot of kids depend on this scholarship, she said. “If their scholarship was taken away from them, a lot of kids will be forced to go to schools we don’t really want them in. We just want choices. We want choices.”

About 43 students at the school use the scholarship, Principal Glenn Timmons said.

“The children are benefiting from it,” he said. “The parents are happy because they have a choice and they see their children’s lives transformed. And that’s always good.”

As the rally came to an end that afternoon, the FEA responded to the rally with a statement saying it did not plan to back down.

“For more than a year, voucher groups have been demanding FEA drop a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax-credit vouchers. What are they so afraid of going to the courts to ensure this voucher scheme is legal?” McCall, the union’s president, asked. “Let’s let the courts decide this once and for all. We’re not dropping our legal challenge.”

The tax-credit scholarship is not a voucher program, tax-proponents maintain, as the money goes from the donor directly to the scholarship funding organization.

Knowing the fight likely would not be over because of the rally, King III told the crowd he was hopeful.

“Ultimately, if the courts have to decide, the courts will be on side of justice,” he said during his keynote address. “Because this is about justice. This is about freedom. The freedom to choose what’s best for your family and your child most importantly.”

For more rally photos,  please click here.

This video aired in the Tallahassee market right before the Super Bowl 50 kickoff.

 

Travis Pillow of redefinEd and Sherri Ackerman of Step Up For Students contributed to this report.

BAEO enters legal fray to defend Florida tax credit scholarships

Editor’s Note:  This post originally ran Dec. 14 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.  Jon East is vice president of Policy and Public Affairs for Step Up For Students.

By JON EAST

gavel1-150x150A national organization that fights for the academic needs of black students entered the lawsuit over Florida’s tax credit scholarship today. The group, Black Alliance for Educational Options, filed an amicus brief urging the First District Court of Appeal to reject the state teacher union’s attempt to shut down the scholarship and to affirm a circuit judge’s dismissal of the case.

The brief tracks some of the legal arguments offered by lawyers representing the state and scholarship parents, but its tone is more personal. “BAEO knows from recent history that without high quality educational options such as the FTC scholarships, many of these students would never be in a position to enjoy their full panoply of civil rights – those rights can ring hollow for illiterate black students,” wrote Michael Ufferman, the attorney for BAEO.BAEO-media_logo_graphic

The tax credit scholarship, passed into law in 2001, is serving 78,014 low-income schoolchildren this year. Of those, 23,268 are black. Their average household income is $23,551, which is 0.6 percent above poverty. Roughly 54 percent live with only one parent.

The Florida Education Association and other groups filed suit in August 2014, asking the courts to declare the scholarship unconstitutional. Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds dismissed the case on standing in May, ruling the plaintiffs could not show how they or public schools were harmed. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 similarly rejected a challenge to a tax credit scholarship law in Arizona, denying standing, and three other state supreme courts have ruled in favor of the scholarships. None to date has ruled against them.

“If this lawsuit succeeds, the results will be devastating to the nearly 80,000 low-income and working-class, mostly black and Hispanic students who will be kicked out of their schools,” BAEO Policy and Research Director Tiffany Forrester said in a news release. “But it will also be a blow to social justice. Wealthy families have always had choices in education; low-income and working-class families deserve the same.”

BAEO also said in the release it was “very disappointed” the Florida NAACP joined in filing the suit. Two other plaintiffs, the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators, have withdrawn since the case was dismissed in circuit court. Meanwhile, a growing number of leading black ministers across the state have joined the cause against the lawsuit, calling themselves the “Florida African-American Ministers Alliance For Parental Choice.”

Earlier this month, attorneys for the state and scholarship families filed response briefs in the First District Court of Appeal. They asked to court to schedule oral arguments for the appeal.

 

 

The distorted history of Florida tax credit scholarships

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on Aug. 31 on redefinED, a blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. It is written by Jon East, Step Up For Students vice president of Public Affairs and Policy.

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Jon East

In a new appellate brief asking the courts to throw out a 14-year-old scholarship serving 78,000 of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students, lawyers for Florida’s teachers union have doubled down on a conspiracy theory. These attempts to sow seeds of doubt about the political origins of the Tax Credit Scholarship strike the unusual combination of being both irrelevant and wrong.The brief, filed 10 days ago in the First District Court of Appeal following a circuit judge’s decision in May to dismiss the case on standing, opens with a bold assertion: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.”

The teachers union is trying to sell its lawsuit as a type of police action for Bush v. Holmes, the 2006 Supreme Court decision that overturned publicly funded school vouchers for students who were assigned to district schools judged to be failing. Meyer wants judges to believe lawmakers made a fast end-around on the Holmes decision.

A broad expanse of case law suggests this distinction is, constitutionally speaking, a red herring. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court and three state supreme courts have all found in favor of tax credit scholarships, and no state courts have ultimately ruled against them. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2011 precedent, went so far as to deny standing to those challenging tax credit scholarships in Arizona, ruling that tax-credited contributions are not the same as government expenditures.

Arizona draws an even clearer legal line. In cases that are strikingly similar to Florida, the Arizona Supreme Court approved of scholarships funded by tax-credited contributions on the one hand and outlawed publicly funded vouchers on the other. “This tax credit is not an appropriation of public money,” it wrote in the first instance. “Unlike the funds (for tax credit scholarships), the funds at issue here are withdrawn from the public treasury and earmarked for an identified purpose,” it wrote later in rejecting direct vouchers.

But let’s return to the conspiracy theory for what it’s worth. Merriam-Webster defines “successor” as someone or something that “follows in sequence” or “after someone else.” That is simply not the history here. The Tax Credit Scholarship was passed into law in 2001, five years before the Bush v. Holmes decision that invalidated tax-funded vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). Five years.

On the next page of its brief, the FEA contradicts the “successor” claim when it acknowledges that the Legislature created the program “while the Holmes litigation against the OSP was still pending” – not after the court had ruled.

Later in the brief, the FEA takes the conspiracy down a different path, linking growth in the Tax Credit Scholarship to the court decision: “Since the 2005-2006 school year — when the Supreme Court invalidated the OSP — the amount of tax revenue that has been diverted to pay for these private-school vouchers has increased from $88 million to more than $286 million.”

In this instance, at least, the brief captures the correct time frame for the Bush v. Holmes decision. But the implication that the Legislature began growing the Tax Credit Scholarship program as a means of replacing the OSP is nonsensical. The tax credit program has never provided eligibility for students who are assigned to public schools deemed to be failing, and the growth in the scholarship reflects primarily the demand from low-income families who are eligible.

In 2010, the Legislature went further and decided to allow growth to be triggered administratively when certain financial and enrollment thresholds are met. Like previous expansions of the program, the Legislature’s intent was clear: To extend learning options to more disadvantaged students.

Readers should be aware that I’m vice president for policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, the state’s largest scholarship organization, so I can reasonably be accused of bias. But what strikes me about the conspiracy claim is how easy it is to refute and yet how prominent a role it continues to play in the FEA’s lawsuit narrative. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the brief also implores appellate judges to adhere to a procedural requirement, at this stage, to “accept all well-pled allegations in the complaint as true.” This one is not so much.