‘Drop the suit’

Thousands demand teachers drop voucher lawsuit

BY BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Calling on God and the memory of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thousands of protesters descended Tuesday on Tallahassee to demand that opponents of the state’s de facto school-voucher program drop a lawsuit challenging the survival of the system.

A large Tallahassee crowd protests a challenge to Florida’s business-funded scholarship system for low-income students. (COURTESY OF WCTV-TV)
A large Tallahassee crowd protests a challenge to Florida’s business-funded scholarship system for low-income students.
(COURTESY OF WCTV-TV)

Based on head counts from buses and school groups that attended the rally, organizers said that more than 10,500 people gathered on the crisp winter morning. Protesters jammed the street between the Capitol and the Florida Supreme Court and trickled over into a plaza outside the Capitol.

Keep the system
Speakers who backed the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program – mostly African-Americans and Latinos – laced into the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, for a legal attack on the system.

The program provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that help pay for low-income children to attend private schools.

“In the name of the Lord, drop the suit,” demanded the Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. “In the name of the Holy Spirit, drop the suit.”

‘Issue of justice’
The star attraction to the rally was Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader whose birthday was marked by the nation on Monday.

160122_front04b“My dad – I don’t know if I can aptly speak to what he would say today,” King said. “But what I can say is, I know that he always stood up for justice, and this is an issue of justice.”

The union’s lawsuit, filed in 2014, argues that the voucher program violates the Legislature’s responsibility to provide every student with a quality education. Opponents say the system siphons away money that could be used for public schools, though voucher supporters note that the scholarships actually provide less per student than it costs to educate a child in public schools.

The challenge also draws on a 2006 ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program – a purer version of a voucher system, using public money directly to fund private education for some students.

The lawsuit targeting the Tax Credit Scholarship Program was dismissed last year by a Leon County judge, who said the union didn’t have standing to challenge the program, but voucher opponents have appealed the case to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Expanded eligibility
In the wake of the challenge, groups that support the voucher system have begun emphasizing the benefits of the program to low-income students – though lawmakers approved legislation in 2014 that would allow for a family of four earning up to $63,050 to be eligible for at least a partial scholarship in the 2016-17 school year.

“I wonder truly how anybody could be against these scholarships,” said Julio Fuentes, head of the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. “These scholarships are helping low-income children. They are helping minority children.

How did that become such a bad thing?”

Going forward
In a statement issued Tuesday, Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said the organization didn’t intend 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 said. “Let’s let the courts decide this once and for all. We’re not dropping our legal challenge.”

McCall’s group staged its own rally last week, drawing about 2,000 teachers and other public-school employees to the Capitol to call on lawmakers to place more emphasis on classroom learning and less focus on standardized tests.

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