School choice scores another legal win in Florida

School choice supporters won a legal victory in Florida Monday, as they knocked down some of the arguments in a wide-ranging lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s education system.

In a bench ruling, Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds rebuffed a constitutional challenge of the state’s tax credit scholarship program, according to two Institute for Justice lawyers present for the hearing and a report from the Associated Press.

The ruling, however, does not mean the scholarship program, which serves 77,000 low-income students, is in the clear. The “adequacy” lawsuit is separate from another suit that is focused exclusively on the scholarship program. That suit, filed last year by the statewide teachers union, is still pending before the First District Court of Appeal.

The broader adequacy suit argues, among other things, that state lawmakers have violated the state constitution by under-funding public schools, using student test scores in teacher evaluations and enacting various school choice programs.

Reynolds is holding a series of case management hearings to decide how to deal with those issues during a trial set for early next year. According to the AP, he decided the groups behind the lawsuit did not have standing to challenge the school choice programs.

The Institute for Justice lawyers represent parents whose children use tax credit scholarships and McKay scholarships to attend private schools. They are helping the state defend its policies.

The education advocacy groups supporting the adequacy suit had argued in court papers that school choice programs “divert public funds to a parallel non-uniform private school system.” They also argued private schools “teach religious doctrine” and are not required to administer the same tests as public schools.

In court filings last month, the lawyers for the parents countered that if the groups behind the case managed to get the school choice programs struck down, “they would succeed in compelling most if not all of 100,000 additional students back into” the public schools their lawsuit claims are “inadequate.”

Indeed, the perversity of Plaintiffs’ attack on the [tax credit scholarship] and McKay Program is compounded by the fact that extensive research has shown that these two programs have positive effects on the very public school system Plaintiffs believe is underfunded and performing poorly. Both of these programs actually save the state money, money that can be spent on other state purposes such as increasing per capita spending on public school students. And these programs have non-financial benefits as well, as they strengthen the public-schools system by improving student performance through increased competition. Should the Plaintiffs succeed, theirs will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed, and a devastating loss of opportunities to Intervenor Parents’ children and 100,000 other children similarly situated.

According to the Institute for Justice lawyers, Dick Komer and Ari Bargil, Reynolds on Monday rejected the portion of the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarship program. The plaintiffs could still try to argue the tax credit scholarships undermine public schools in their broader arguments about adequate funding. The challenge of McKay Scholarships, which serve nearly 30,000 children with special needs, may also remain in play.

Monday’s decision, which still needs to be finalized on paper, is the third in a string of legal victories, in three separate cases, for defenders of Florida’s school choice programs.

Last year, a different circuit judge ruled against a lawsuit challenging legislation that expanded the tax credit scholarship program in 2014 and created a new educational choice program for students with significant special needs. The teachers union declined to appeal that case.

Earlier this year, Reynolds, the same judge who ruled Monday in the adequacy suit, also dismissed the lawsuit that takes direct aim at the tax credit scholarship program. The teachers union has since appealed that ruling.

The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.