TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida appeals court rejected a bid to end the state’s largest private school voucher program on Tuesday, but it’s unclear if the ruling will end the two-year-old legal battle.
The 1st District Court of Appeal sided with a lower court’s decision to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others, who argue that its method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren this year is unconstitutional.
The three-judge panel said the plaintiffs haven’t been harmed by the program, and denied that it violates state law. The vouchers are funded by corporations, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.
The legal fight has been closely watched. Supporters have mounted an expensive public relations campaign to persuade the union and others to drop the lawsuit.
Union officials said they would decide later if they would appeal, but in the past have said they were likely to push their lawsuit all the way to the state Supreme Court, which previously ended a different voucher program championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Once again, the merits of this case aren’t being argued,” said Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall in a statement.
“The court says that teachers and parents and other groups aren’t allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers. The courts ruled a previous voucher scheme unconstitutional. Why won’t they let teachers and parents challenge this one?”
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the lobbying arm of the state’s bishops, opposed the legal challenge to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, arguing that the program is essential to ensure economically disadvantaged families and children have access to educational choices that best meet their needs and would otherwise be unattainable.
According to the conference, 24 percent of students in their schools use some form of vouchers or public scholarships.
The latest numbers show Florida Catholic school enrollment rose slightly this year, from 84,452 to 85,539 in Pre-K-12, marking the fifth straight year of growth and defying national trends of declining enrollment in Catholic schools.
“The scholarship program serves the common good of all Florida residents by strengthening our state’s education system and complementing the range of learning opportunities available,” said James Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Victor Curry, bishop of the New Baptist Church in Miami and chairman of a group fighting to keep the program, reiterated his call to end the legal dispute.
“It’s long past time for all of us who care so passionately about public education to put aside our differences and work together,” Curry said in a statement. “This sweeping ruling should compel us to focus on the real enemies – despair, hopelessness and the ravages of generational poverty.”
Florida has several voucher programs in place; the one being challenged extends vouchers to low-income families, most of them black or Hispanic, who send their children to religious schools. It began in 2001 under Bush, and legislators approved expanding it to middle-income families starting this fall.
The union’s lawsuit argues that it violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and directing tax money to religious institutions.
But Judge Lori Rowe, who wrote Tuesday’s ruling, said the plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue because they had not shown that other school funding had declined because of the program, which is expected to cost $559 million this school year, or provided other proof of “concrete harm.”
Rowe added that the tax credit scholarship program doesn’t violate a constitutional ban on state aid to religious institutions because it involves the taxing, and not the spending power, of the Florida Legislature.