Lawsuit challenging Florida school choice legislation hits snag

A lawsuit challenging Florida’s newest school choice legislation hit a roadblock Wednesday, as a Leon County circuit judge found the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case.

Judge Charles Francis dismissed the case from the bench after a brief hearing, but gave the people challenging the law 15 days to rework their arguments.

The plaintiffs, including a public-school history teacher from Lee County, could not show they were harmed by a law that created new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts and expanded access to the state’s tax credit scholarship program, along with a number of other education-related measures.

As a result, they had to argue SB 850 fell under an exception, which allows taxpayers to challenge laws that violate constitutional limits on the Legislature’s authority to tax or spend.

Ramya Ravindran, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, argued parts of the new law, including the creation of new school choice accounts for special needs students, “arise under the Legislature’s taxing and spending power.”

But Jonathan Glogau, a lawyer for the state, argued if that rule applied to SB 850, it would apply to just about any legislation, since most bills that create new programs have some bearing on the state budget.

Francis agreed.

“I think under what you’re proposing, that exception would be the general rule, because almost every bill has some kind of spending effect to it, and I don’t think that’s what the courts have said,” he said to Ravindran before dismissing the case.

For the case to proceed, the plaintiffs will have to overcome that hurdle.

The lawsuit is backed by the statewide teachers union. A group of parents, whose special needs children are among the nearly 1,000 who so far have been approved for the new personal learning accounts, has intervened to defend the law.

Because the 20-minute hearing touched only on the standing issue, the two sides did not address the substance of the case, which contends the bill violated the state constitutional provision that requires bills to only deal with only one subject.

The personal learning accounts and tax credit scholarships are both administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said the union is considering what to do next.

“We wish the judge had taken up the merits of the case, because it’s clear that the Legislature overstepped its authority in passing this legislation,” she said in a statement.

Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who pushed for the personal learning accounts, issued a statement calling on the union to drop the challenge.

“We are hopeful the Florida Education Association will take this opportunity to re-evaluate their case and recognize the harm continuing this lawsuit will cause students with unique abilities who have been awarded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts and the more than 60,000 recipients of Tax Credit Scholarships who are thriving in classrooms and other education programs across our state,” he said.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post. See also: Coverage in the Gradebook and Orlando Sentinel, and a statement from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.