By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
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.”
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
A 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.
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.