The state's largest teachers union filed a legal challenge Wednesday contesting how lawmakers "log rolled" a series of education issues --- including an expansion of a controversial school vouchers program --- into a single bill that passed in the waning hours of the 2014 legislative session.
The Florida Education Association, a longtime opponent of voucher programs, filed a complaint in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Leon County that challenges the constitutionality of how legislators patched together legislation into a wide-ranging education bill (SB 850). The voucher expansion had appeared dead in the Senate until getting approved in the broader bill.
"This was a sneaky way for the legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed," said union Vice President Joanne McCall. "It's an outrage that the corporate voucher expansion was tacked on to an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the session's final day."
The lawsuit, which is filed under the name of East Lee County High School social studies teacher Tom Faasse, was quickly criticized as "shameful" and a "new low" by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"As a society, we must work to unlock education opportunities for students who need them the most. Senate Bill 850 will help children with Down's syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities have greater choices and the critical support necessary for successful education outcomes," foundation Chief Executive Officer Patricia Levesque said in a prepared statement. "There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids. And sadly there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power."
Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also criticized the lawsuit in a separate statement, saying, "It is unfortunate the hard-earned money our teachers contribute to the FEA is now being spent to fund litigation designed to limit educational opportunities for children across our state."
McCall said after a news conference that the union had been working towards the lawsuit since the bill was approved May 2 by the Legislature. She added that the lawsuit is unrelated to the union's endorsement of former Gov. Charlie Crist in this year's gubernatorial race.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law June 20. Among other things, the law makes changes in middle-school and career education, along with continuing efforts to reduce hazing and prevent dropouts.
The House initially approved the bill 115-1 on April 30. But lawmakers broke along mostly party lines in the House and Senate as a 140-page amendment was approved on the final day of session.
The amendment included changes to the Tax Credit Scholarship vouchers program and created "personal learning scholarship accounts" that are aimed at helping parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services.
The Florida Education Association is seeking a quick decision in the lawsuit as the "personal learning scholarship accounts" are being introduced this week.
Union attorney Ron Meyer said lawmakers "log rolled" several pieces of unrelated legislation, loosely tied to education, into a single package, which is prohibited the Florida Constitution. The constitution requires each law to embrace a single subject that is "briefly expressed" in the title.
"Log rolling has always happened, and I guess unless someone says you have to follow the constitution, people will continue to go forward not following the constitution," Meyer said.
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that then pay for children to go to private schools. Changes to the program were a major priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Under the new law, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit. The value of each individual scholarship also will rise.