Opponents of tuition vouchers file lawsuit in Florida

TALLAHASSEE Fla. Thu Aug 28, 2014 7:29pm EDT

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TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Opponents of tuition vouchers in Florida filed suit on Thursday against the state's corporate tax credit scholarship program, saying it illegally subsidizes religious schools and violates the state's requirement to guarantee uniform public education for all.

Former Governor Jeb Bush had originally introduced "opportunity scholarships" 15 years ago. After an appeals court ruled in 2006 that the scholarships violated the prohibition of state aid to any church, sect or religious domination, the legislature separately enacted the corporate tax-credit system.

Lawmakers expanded it in the past legislative session.

Bush and Governor Rick Scott and have championed the scholarship program, saying it helps students get into schools that their parents otherwise could not afford.

   The lawsuit by the Florida Education Association (FEA), a federation of teacher and education workers' labor unions, and other critics of the plan was filed in Leon County Circuit Court.

It cites appellate court rulings from 2006 that said the program violated two parts of Florida's Constitution: the requirement that all students get a uniform education and the section prohibiting tax aid to religious institutions.

   "The courts told the legislature and the governor that the voucher program was illegal and provided them with two good reasons why vouchers didn't pass constitutional muster," Joanne McCall, vice president of the FEA, told a news conference.

"But political leaders didn't listen and continue to expand voucher programs, like the tax-credit vouchers, which are being challenged today."

Critics of voucher systems say they drain funds from U.S. public schools and subsidize overtly religious education. Supporters say they offer families greater choice in schools.

   "Once again, the usual Obama team of trial lawyers and unions are playing politics instead of putting Florida children first," Scott said in a statement.

Scott, a Republican, is campaigning for re-election against former Governor Charlie Crist, who has been endorsed by the FEA.

In a statement, Bush called the suit an attack on parental choice "by an entrenched education establishment more concerned about protecting the status quo" than helping families.

Bush said up to 69,000 needy students can apply for the aid, and Scott said nearly 70 percent of them are black or Hispanic.

Joining the FEA in the lawsuit were the Florida School Boards Association, League of Women Voters, Florida PTA, Association of School Administrators, Florida NAACP and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

(The story corrects surname of former governor to Crist in paragraph 11)

(Reporting by Bill Cotterell; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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