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Thursday, November 24, 2016

State, parents seek to end lawsuit against tax credit scholarships

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2016 at 12:30 PM

Attorneys for the state and a group of parents asked the Florida Supreme Court this week to reject a lawsuit challenging a program that helps pay for tens of thousands of children to attend private schools.

The filings came amid ratcheted-up debate about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. On Tuesday, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, described the lawsuit, spearheaded by the Florida Education Association teachers union, as "evil."

The union and other plaintiffs went to the Supreme Court after a Leon County circuit judge and the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected the lawsuit, finding that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing. Under the program, businesses can receive tax credits for contributing money to organizations that, in turn, pay for children to attend private schools.

In filings Tuesday and Wednesday, Attorney General Pam Bondi's office and lawyers for parents who intervened in the case urged the Supreme Court to decline to take up the dispute. Such a decision effectively would end the challenge.

Opponents of the program have focused heavily on a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that found unconstitutional a voucher program championed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. But in the filings this week, Bondi's office and the intervenors argued that the programs are different, with the Bush-era "Opportunity Scholarship Program" involving direct payments from the state to private schools.

"Contrary to petitioners' contention, there is no equivalence between the tax credits at issue in this case and the legislative appropriations that funded the OSP (Opportunity Scholarship Program)," attorneys for the intervenors said in a brief filed Wednesday. "The argument that tax credits and direct expenditures are legally equivalent has been roundly rejected."

But in a September brief, attorneys for the union and other plaintiffs argued that both programs led to improperly diverting money to private schools.

"Then, as now, the Legislature paid for the vouchers by diverting public funds," the plaintiffs' brief said. "Then, as now, the (Opportunity Scholarship Program) did not subject private schools that received vouchers to the same educational standards that were generally applicable to public schools."

Voucher-type programs have been one of the most-controversial issues in Florida's educational system for the past two decades. Supporters say the programs help low-income children get out of failing public schools, while opponents argue the programs drain much-needed money from the public system.

The Tax Credit Scholarship Program has grown substantially over the years and now includes 92,000 children, according to the intervenors' brief filed Wednesday. It is unclear when the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case.

The lower-court rulings have focused on the standing issue, including whether the plaintiffs can show that they have been harmed by the scholarship program.

"As the circuit court and the unanimous panel of the First District correctly concluded … petitioners' disagreement with the Legislature's carefully crafted policy choice does not suffice to establish a concrete, particularized injury; and a scholarship program that does not impose any tax or spend any public money does not and cannot run afoul of constitutional limits on the Legislature's authority to impose taxes or expend public funds," Bondi's office argued in an 11-page brief filed Tuesday.

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