FEA: Tax credit scholarship program unconstitutional

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – School choice advocates say the futures of 70,000 students are on the line if public school teachers in Florida can get a judge to side with them. The public and private fight had its day in court.

Monday's case came a day before potential 2016 presidential candidate and former Gov. Jeb Bush is scheduled to hold an education summit in Tallahassee. The summit will push Bush's policies, including school accountability and school choice.

Dozens of people gathered outside a Tallahassee courtroom Monday in the latest chapter of the public school-private school fight. The Florida Education Association Teacher's Union claims the tax credit scholarship program is unconstitutional.

"The Florida Legislature is to provide a free, quality, uniform, public education system," said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. "(It) doesn't matter how you slice it -- when you're diverting private dollars into a voucher system and you're making a parallel system, that's not accountable."

The program pays for private school tuition by providing tax breaks for corporations funding the scholarships. Around 70,000 students are currently benefiting. 

Parents from around the state with kids in the program traveled to the courtroom and said public schools weren't the right option for them

Marlene Desdunes, a South Florida parent with children in both public schools and using the scholarship program, said one of her daughters wouldn't have thrived if she didn't have the choice of where to send her.

"The benefit is having individualized instruction, an opportunity for her to be in a small class learning environment, where she is able to get one-on-one instruction," Desdunes said.

In 2006, the state's Supreme Court declared the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program unconstitutional because it was using tax money that could have gone toward public schools. The teacher's union said the same thing is happening now, but the state's lawyers said there are plenty of differences.

"Absolutely there are differences," said Attorney Raoul Cantero. "In 2006 the Supreme Court said you can't use the public treasury to produce an alternative to the public schools. This is not using any funds from the public treasury."

While the state was seeking a dismissal of the case, the judge did not choose to rule from the bench due to the case's complexity.