TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) — The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops applauded a decision by a state appeals court to dismiss a 2-year-old lawsuit challenging Florida’s largest voucher program for private schools.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is “a proven method of contributing to the common good and the education of all Florida students, the Tallahassee-based conference said in a statement posted on its website.
The Florida Education Association originally filed suit against the program claiming it violates the Florida Constitution. The association is a statewide federation of teacher and education workers’ labor unions.
In dismissing the suit, McCall v. Scott, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision by the Circuit Court that found the Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs lacked standing in the case. The panel also said the plaintiffs could not show that the program harms public school funding or quality of education.
Through the program’s scholarships, economically disadvantaged families and children have access to educational choices that would otherwise be unattainable,” said the Catholic conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.
Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Lori Rowe said in the 30-page ruling: “At most, (the opponents) quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine. … Appellants’ (the opponents’) remedy is at the polls.”
Joining in the opinion were Judges Ross Bilbrey and Scott Makar.
Since 2001, when it was enacted by the Legislature, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “has been providing hope and opportunity to thousands of students from low-income households,” the conference said.
An earlier school voucher program was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court, which said that it violated the state constitution.
Backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Florida Education Association brought suit against the current program because it says it is redirecting taxpayer money to religious schools, thereby creating a separate system of state-funded schools. The association has not said whether it will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under the program the state of Florida awards tax credits for contributions to scholarship funding organizations, which in turn award scholarships for students to attend private schools. The scholarship money is used to pay tuition, fees and other related expenses.
According to the program, qualifying students must come from families with an income of no more than $44,122 for a household of four. Currently, more than 69,000 students receive the scholarships and their average household income is only 4.5 percent above the poverty level. More than two-thirds of the recipients are African-American or Hispanic and more than half live in single-parent homes.
The Florida Catholic conference said that during the 2015-2016 school year, Florida’s Catholic schools served 13,369 students in the program, which represents 15.6 percent of the 85,539 students attending Catholic schools in the state.