Florida judge throws out lawsuit against voucher program

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Backers of Florida's largest private-school voucher program scored a significant victory Monday in an increasingly bitter legal battle.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds tossed out a lawsuit that contended that the program that serves nearly 70,000 students across the state by placing them in private and mostly religious schools is unconstitutional.

Reynolds ruled that the groups filing the lawsuit did not have a legal right, or "standing," to challenge the program. He also ruled that the groups, which included both the state's main teacher union as a well a group that represents school boards, did not show how they were being harmed by the program.

The Florida Education Association said in a statement it would consider whether to appeal the ruling — but it sounded as if the union was not ready to drop the fight yet.

"We believe that if the facts are allowed to be heard that the courts would find that this tax-credit voucher program is unconstitutional," said Joanne McCall, a vice president with the FEA in a statement. "It's time to settle the issue of the constitutionality of vouchers once and for all."

The legal battle has been closely watched as supporters have mounted an advertising and public relations campaign that called for the lawsuit to be dropped because of its potential impacts to families using the vouchers. The Florida House passed a bill that would have placed financial restrictions on one of the groups behind the lawsuit. The legislation did not pass because the annual session ended abruptly.

"This is a great day for some of Florida's most vulnerable families schoolchildren," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami in a statement. "Our Catholic schools are committed to helping the least among us, and we agree with Judge Reynolds that there is no reason to exclude any education option that might help reduce the scourge of generational poverty."

The state's first tax credit scholarship program was launched in 2001 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a likely candidate for U.S. president.

Two years earlier Bush set up the state's first voucher program for children attending low-performing schools. The state Supreme Court ultimately declared it unconstitutional, saying it violated a requirement that the state had a "paramount duty" to have a uniform and high quality system of "free public schools." A lower court had also ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds it violated a provision that says no aid may be given by the state to religious institutions.

But Bush and the GOP-controlled Legislature created other voucher programs including one that allows businesses to get credits on their state tax bills if they donate to an organization that gives vouchers to children in low-income families. Over the years legislators have expanded eligibility requirements and starting in 2016 middle-income families may also qualify for the program.

The lawsuit contended that the tax credit program violated the constitution the same way the previous program did.

But Reynolds ruled that taxpayers can't challenge the program because the money is not handed out annually by the Florida Legislature in the state budget. He also called it "speculative" to suggest that public schools are receiving less money because of the voucher program.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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