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Policy: Labor

Teachers union sues to prevent expansion of privately-funded voucher program

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Education,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Florida,School Vouchers,Rick Scott,School Choice,National Education Association

In an impressive display of “we don't care how this looks,” the Florida Education Association has sued the Sunshine State to prevent students from receiving more state-managed, privately-funded scholarships, including a new scholarship program for disabled students.

The lawsuit, filed June 16, and the accompanying press release didn't even try to offer any proof that the voucher programs are somehow bad for students. The best it could do was to argue that vouchers cannot be linked to any student gains.

Instead, FEA claims it is suing Republican Gov. Rick Scott and other top officials because the attempt to expand Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program and add a similar program aimed at the disabled is in technical violation of state legislative rules.

"It is an outrage that corporate voucher expansion was tacked onto an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the final day of the session," FEA Vice President Joanne McCall said.

Umm, ok.

It is a fairly thin reed to hang a lawsuit on, but if it prevails, thousands of middle class and disabled students will be denied access to funding for private education. The FEA, whose 140,000 members are primarily public school teachers, is the state branch of the 3 million-member National Education Association.

Voucher programs threaten teacher unions because they boost private education, which isn't nearly as heavily unionized.

The unions have long said they object to school voucher programs for more altruistic reasons. The main argument is that vouchers drain funding away from public schools, leaving the children outside the program worse off.

But Florida and 13 other states have instituted a version that relies on private funding. The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2001, works with outside nonprofit groups who raise the funds. The state regulates the program, vetting the groups and setting the educational standards.

It's a popular program, with about 60,000 students currently receiving scholarships. This year, Scott signed legislation to expand it further, raising the tax credit cap to $874 million and opening the program up to families making about $60,000 annually. It is currently limited to families making about $43,000.

The system is not entirely private money though: The state provides tax credits to the nonprofits. The available credits are currently capped at $286 million annually. On that basis, FEA argues the program still uses public money.

Is that lost revenue really hurting public school students, though? According to state data, in 2007, the state had 2.6 million students and spent $9.7 billion on education, putting per pupil spending at $3,690. That's not including local and federal contributions.

State education spending has varied from year-to-year, hitting a low of $8.7 billion in 2011. But in the latest budget Scott signed last month, state education spending will rise to $10.6 billion. Enrollment has risen too, to 2.7 million students, putting per-pupil expenditures at $3,911.

So state spending has actually grown overall in both categories. At the same time, the system is taking care of 60,000 fewer students than it would otherwise due to the program.

Is it possible that public school students are still worse off? I asked FEA for any figures they have for how much revenue has been lost to the state public education budget due to the program. I am still waiting to hear back.

Brian Backstrom, senior policy adviser to the Center for Education Reform, which supports voucher programs, points out that the tax credits may have other benefits that ultimately boost state education.

"New economic activity is likely to be stimulated by businesses attracted by the credit-funded scholarship program to stay and even expand in Florida, which actually could generate new tax revenue for the state," Backstrom told the Washington Examiner.

FEA’s legal case is built entirely around the argument that the state constitution limits the legislature to passing bills that "embrace but one subject." The tax credit expansion however "contains provisions that were lumped together because the legislature had been unable to enact them in separate bills."

Given that the expansions were included in a broader bill regulating state education policy, it doesn't seem on its face to violate even the letter of the state constitution. Then again, who knows what the Florida courts will do? The teachers union might get its victory and limit students' choice in education.

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