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More money sought for school legal fights

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Education is seeking more than $1 million in the upcoming fiscal year to cover mounting legal expenses, a $785,000 increase over what it received for the current year.

The department said in a budget proposal, approved by the State Board of Education last week, that the money is needed because of “the rising costs of lawsuits challenging education policies and priorities put forward by the state Legislature.”

Lawmakers would need to approve the money during the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January.

This spring, lawmakers agreed to give the department $250,000 to pay for “ongoing and potential future litigation” against state education policies.

In their budget request for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, education officials said the money is needed to help with costs tied to four separate lawsuits.

The most recent lawsuit, which was filed against the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, is included in that tally.

The other three lawsuits include a case that alleges the state failed to properly fund public education; a case that challenges policies that require students to demonstrate their ability to read to move on to fourth grade; and a case challenging the constitutionality of a 2017 law that focuses heavily on boosting charter schools.

In the coming months, the department also could face a court battle about a newly created vouchers program, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.

Organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center argue the scholarship program is unconstitutional.