January 19, 2017

A good day for students’ school choice in Florida

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a union’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, and a Florida appellate court rejected a school district’s claim that charter schools violate the state constitution. These decisions protect K-12 students across the state.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program allows businesses to get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to organizations that distribute scholarships for children to attend private K-12 schools. To be eligible for the scholarships, a child must live in a household that earn up to 2.6 times the federal poverty level. Students may receive scholarships of up to $5,886, which is 82% of the state’s portion of per-pupil funding. Last school year, 78,664 children attended private schools with scholarships from the tax credit program. Even though study after study has confirmed that school choice programs like this improve outcomes for students in public and private school, unions continue to fight them.

In 2014, teachers unions filed a lawsuit alleging that Florida’s tax credit scholarship program violates the Florida Constitution. Fortunately, the trial court dismissed the case for lack of standing, and the First District Court of Appeal agreed. The reason? The unions and other plaintiffs have no injury, because tax credits are not appropriations of state money and do not divert state money from public schools to private schools. Without an injury, they cannot sue the state. Today, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the union’s appeal, meaning that thousands of kids’ scholarships are safe.

Florida’s charter schools are safe, too. The Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected a teacher union’s claim that charter schools violate the state constitution. Charter schools are privately run public schools that operate under a performance contract (charter) with a public sponsor (usually a school district). Charter schools operate free from many state laws and regulations so that they have more freedom and flexibility to tailor their programs to their students and to focus on providing students with the best education possible. Unlike traditional public schools that enroll students based on their home addresses, parents must opt out of their local school and choose to enroll their children in charter schools. Charter schools must therefore compete with neighborhood schools for students by providing families with a better option for their particular needs. But some school boards don’t like the competition and unfairly deny charter applications.

Last year, PLF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fourth District Court of Appeal arguing that the School Board of Palm Beach County illegally denied an application to start a new charter school. The charter school applicant appealed to the State Board of Education, which held that the application should have been approved. The School Board then appealed, claiming, among other things, that charter schools violate the state constitution. Yesterday, the court rejected that claim, but remanded the case back to the State Board for reconsideration, because the State Board failed to “include fact-based justifications” in its decision, as required by the state charter law.

These decisions—just in time for National School Choice Week, next week— give families across Florida cause to celebrate that their educational options are safe. PLF will be celebrating National School Choice Week, too, so be sure to check the Liberty Blog Monday to celebrate with us.

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School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida

The School Board of Palm Beach County illegally denied South Palm Beach Charter School’s application to start a new charter school, claiming that the school lacks “innovation” and fails to fulfill the state charter statute’s requirement that charter schools “[e]ncourage the use of innovative learning methods.” The charter school applicant appealed to the State Board of Education, which held that the application should have been approved and the Florida Court of Appeal, where PLF participated as amicus, affirmed that decision. The School Board petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to review the case.

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