Report on Feb 9, 2015 Court Hearing

REPORT ON FEBRUARY 9, 2015 COURT HEARING
ISSUE: STANDING FOR VOUCHER LAWSUIT, McCALL v. SCOTT:
The issue before the court in my lay person’s was precisely this: If the court finds that teachers, school administrators, parents, students and taxpayers have no standing to challenge the legislature’s indirect funding of Florida’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, who in the state of Florida does?

In Leon County Court yesterday appearing before County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III, the state and intervenors argued that because corporate tax payments are diverted before they enter state tax coffers the money is “exempt” from other regulation or compliance with constitutional restrictions. Their argument was that tax credits issued to corporations that elect to contribute to the FTC program are the same as other contributions to 501 c-3 entities and therefore opening the program up to scrutiny would extend the issue to ALL 501 c-3 contributions.
The judge summarized their argument by stating that “the money never became public” so taxpayers have no standing. The defendants also argued that just because funds are paid into the treasury or are due the treasury it does not follow that all or a specific portion of that money would flow through to public schools. Therefore there was no special injury. In fact, they argued that by sending students to private schools at a lesser cost the state benefitted from the program and school districts had lower costs.
The plaintiffs (the LWV of Florida is joined as a plaintiff) argued, that the state cannot do indirectly what it is constrained from doing directly referring to the FL Supreme Court decision of 2006 in Bush v. Holmes that found Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional. While it was evident that the judge was eager to argue the merits of the case, the hearing was to establish standing for the plaintiffs and the merits were not relevant at this time. Ron Meyer and John West for the plaintiffs kept following the train of funding through to public schools related to the reduction in students enrolled and diverted through the FTC program. It was a difficult argument to make because funding fluctuates and is an established purview of the legislature.
The judge summarized their case by comparing the issue to a fuel truck with a load of fuel, but the truck was diverted prior to delivery thereby depriving the initial recipient of fuel. Once again the judge showed a desire to get into the merits, but, of course, the standing of the plaintiffs must be established.
One other issue that seemed to give the judge pause was his prior decision of several weeks earlier granting standing to the case represented by the Southern Legal Counsel titled Citizens for Strong Schools v. DOE. The LWV of Florida had contemplated joining as plaintiff, but the judge determined that the timing was too late and no additional interest was served. The third suit wherein, Judge Francis had found no standing was Faase v. Legislature and this case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. Judge Reynolds will have to reconcile these competing opinions and actions in his final ruling.
Judge Reynolds directed attorneys for both sides to draft a final order favoring their case within ten days for his final review. This is a common approach in a case of this type. There was no indication of how he might decide or a final date given.
The audience was comprised of many interested parties. Teachers, college students, parents, children, league members, P.T. A. representative, Neil Chonin and Jodi Seigel from the Southern Legal Counsel, NAACP, Florida School Boards Assoc., and the list goes on. We will continue to follow and post information on this topic.

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness

by Pat Drago and Sue Legg

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This is not an easy walk into the woods, but you need to know where the funding for charter schools comes from and where it goes. It is your money.

There is a lot money to be made and lost with charter schools, and it is public tax dollars. As usual, independent schools tend to lose it, and large charter management chains come out on top.  This is not always to the children’s benefit.  How does this happen? We looked at the audits and found huge disparities in facility and fee expenditures. This meant that instructional parts of the budgets were reduced accordingly.

We wanted to know how these facilities were financed. If State funds were creating opportunities to make real estate venture capitalists wealthy, we wanted to know how this worked. Unfortunately, public dollars that go to private companies are hard to see. The lack of transparency for their financial records provides only vague outlines. We did find some clues by looking at how facilities are financed.

We wondered what other states were doing to ensure that state money was allocated for instruction and not for profit making ventures. We found some answers. As always, different approaches have their share of unintended consequences. As we groped in the darkness, there was a glimmer of light. The brave among you are invited to go down this path with us.

Continue reading

Time to Enjoy and Reflect on the Coming Year

This time of the year can make us feel we must run just to keep up with all that needs to be done.  On the other hand, we can decide to slow down and enjoy the celebrations.  I like these ‘enjoy the moment’ times and will not be posting much for the next week or so.

It will be useful to mull over what is the best use of our blog this next year.  The changes in Congress will have an impact on education policy.  No doubt states will have more control over how federal funds are spent and how accountable they will need to be.  School choice programs will continue and perhaps escalate.  Testing is likely to continue, but in what form? The debate over whether choice promotes quality will continue.  Stay tuned….send your ideas on how to communicate the issues clearly, concisely, and fairly.

Remember to click the title of the post:  Time to Enjoy… and scroll down to send your comments.

Florida to be epicenter for School Choice Week

School Choice Week will launch in January.  Jacksonville, the home area of the chair of Florida’s Board of Education will launch the week with a nationally televised rally of students, educators and school choice supporters.  This  ‘celebration of choice’ will include all forms of choice from public to private including online and home schools.  The strategy of inclusion does not mask the serious legal and regulatory issues rampant in school choice programs. 

The League supports public schools and opposes sending tax dollars directly or indirectly to private schools.  For-profit charter management companies are under federal investigation.  Florida needs to lead the nation in well managed choice within the public school system. 

Education Team Updates

Alachua County 

The LWV Education Team has co-sponsored, with Alachua County Schools, three showings of Rise Above the Mark.  We are also doing a series of discussions with local church groups on the impact of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships on the issue of separation of church and state.  Our education team is also organizing visits to a cross section of early childhood centers in order to better understand the legislative proposals for improving standards for center personnel and facilities.

Miami-Dade

Throughout the summer, LWV Miami-Dade partnered with public libraries to host a series of educational forums on charter schools and on our statewide study on school choice. Four forums were held starting Sept. 24 through Oct. 7 at various library branches throughout the County. In October and in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, LWV Miami-Dade members presented at various high schools and colleges during the Higher Education Awareness Tour promoting the ideals of democracy and voter empowerment. 

 

Latest on Lawsuits

LAWSUIT STATUS UPDATE SITE

This link below leads to the Leon County Clerk’s High Profile Cases page where both McCall v. Scott and Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education are listed.

December 31, 2014.  The Faase vs. Scott et al lawsuit was thrown out.  This is the suit based on the logrolling complaint for the SB850 passage of voucher expansions and PLA for students with disabilities.

December 1, 2014: Court Review of Tax Credit Vouchers

Sun-Sentinel, Editorial, November 30, 2014

Court review of school vouchers long overdue  Sun Sentinel

Florida’s courts must review the state’s school voucher program after this year’s massive expansion by the Legislature.

The Florida School Board Association and the Florida Education Association — the teachers union — are among the plaintiffs challenging the legality of the program, which provides vouchers to 69,000 students, most of them in religious schools. A hearing will take place this month on the state’s motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit rests on two points. The Florida Constitution bans the spending of public money “directly or indirectly” on religious schools. Diversion of corporate taxes owed to the state through a nonprofit called Step Up for Students and given to parents as vouchers, the plaintiffs argue, does not get around the constitutional ban.

Also, the Constitution requires that the state provide a “uniform” system of public schools. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall calls the voucher program a “parallel” system.” Voucher schools don’t have to give the FCAT or any of the other punitive tests that have so angered parents across the state. Voucher schools must give only a national achievement test.

Jon East is a Step Up for Students vice president. He argues that test scores show gains by voucher students equal to students taking the same test in other states, and that studies show the program to be saving the state money. East also questions the timing of the lawsuit, since the Florida Tax Credit program has been operating for more than a decade.

However, the most recent independent assessment confirms there is no way to accurately compare voucher students with Florida public school students. Absent that accountability, parents who praise the program don’t know with certainty if their children are doing better. And the assessment shows that white voucher students from more affluent families do better — just as in public school.

As for the supposed savings, the calculations rely on information supplied by schools that accept vouchers. And while a legislative analysis this year projected a short-term savings, it also projected a longer-term $30 million deficit.

But why file the lawsuit now? The FEA’s McCall says this year’s expansion was a “tipping point.” Indeed.

The program began in 2002-03 with a limit of $50 million, targeting poor students. This year, the limit is $358 million. Because the limit increases by 25 percent each year, the program could spend $904 million by 2018-19, according to a Florida House analysis.

Families of four making roughly $62,000 will be eligible for a voucher. Three federal surveys place the median income for a Florida family of four at roughly $65,000. That is middle class, not poverty or working poor.

Step Up for Students refers to the “enormous educational challenges faced by children who live in poverty.” Why, then, did Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley push for such a significant expansion? And if the limit can be $62,000, why not $82,000 or $102,000?

East noted, correctly, that the vouchers will be smaller for families that make more money. Yet with this year’s expansion, the Legislature could move to a full voucher program with no income limits. And Kirtley has the influence to push for it.

Kirtley and his wife gave roughly $524,000 in the last election cycle, almost all of it to Republicans. Kirtley also is chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, which successfully targeted voucher critics with roughly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.

Voucher supporters portray critics as hostile to school choice for minorities. Whatever compelling anecdotes supporters use, however, there is no compelling evidence the program is succeeding. Example: If minorities are benefiting, why do black students score 20 points lower than white students on those tests?

No state has a bigger voucher system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.

Florida is on the way to spending $1 billion on a program with questionable accountability that could be the start of an attempt to privatize public education.

Legal review of the voucher program is long overdue.
OCTOBER 31 2014: UPDATE ON MC CALL VS. SCOTT VOUCHER LAWSUIT FROM FEA

Some developments to report.

First of all, the Judge assigned to the case is Judge George Reynolds.  He has been on the bench for many years and is a great judge to have assigned to this case.  He is very experienced.

Second, the State Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the case (attached) asserting that none of the Plaintiffs has standing to bring the challenge.  We will be responding with a legal memorandum in opposition to the motion to dismiss.

Finally, a group of voucher parents (fronting for the Institute for Justice and the Bush Foundation) have filed a motion to intervene as Defendants.  We have not opposed their intervention, but do oppose their effort to expand their participation beyond that generally permitted by the Rules of Civil Procedure.  A hearing to consider their motion and the scope of their participation is scheduled for December 5, 2014.

As developments occur in the case, we post pleadings on our website.  Accordingly, you or League members can easily access the pleadings under the “Litigation” link on our website:

OCTOBER 22, 2014 UPDATE ON McCall VS. SCOTT

  1. The Florida Education Association (FEA) filed McCall et al vs. Scott et al on August 28, 2014. The FEA opposes the log rolling method of passing SB 850 the bill. The law expands tax credit vouchers and personalized learning accounts for students with disabilities. The LWV joined the suit as a plaintiff.
    The Goldwater Institute filed suit to preserve personal learning accounts that are included in SB 850.

OCTOBER 22, 2014 LWV PETITION TO JOIN CITIZENS FOR STRONG SCHOOLS LAWSUIT DENIED

  1. The League of Women Voters petition to join the Southern Legal Counsel lawsuit Citizens for Strong Schools was denied by the judge. He stated that it was too late in the case.  An amended complaint to the case was filed on May 30, 2014. It alleges:
    –The State’s education program violates the state constitution.
    –The State is not providing a high quality pre-K program.
    –The State is failing to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities for educational policy making, budgeting, operation and supervision of Florida’s public schools.

OCTOBER 22, 2014 FAASE VS. SCOTT LAWSUIT REFILED

3.  The Faase vs. Rick Scott lawsuit was refiled.  This suit challenges SB850 which was signed into law by Governor Scott in June.  The suit was initially thrown out because the plaintiff was a teacher, not a parent.  Parents have been added.  The suit challenges the way the bill was put together in the last session by a series of maneuvers to find enough different subjects and votes to pass instead of dealing with a single subject.  The bill both expands the Florida Tax Credit scholarships and adds the Parent Learning Accounts for children with disabilities to attend private schools and pay for services.