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Fla. Teachers' Union Challenges State's New Tax-Credit Scholarship Law

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Florida's teachers' union is backing a legal challenge to a new law that, among other things, expands eligibility for the state's tax-credit scholarships. A member of the FEA filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the governor, members of his cabinet, and the education commissioner to have the law ruled unconstitutional because of the way the legislation was composed and passed.

Tax-credit scholarship programs allow businesses or individuals to claim tax credits for donations made to state-approved organizations, which then give money to eligible students to use toward tuition at private schools.

The FEA's announcement is not completely unexpected, the union said in a statement released near the end of last month that it was weighing whether to challenge the law, which it considers unfair.

"Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades, and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates," FEA Vice President Joanne McCall said in the June statement. "But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools. This unfair dual system must stop."

Other advocacy groups, including the Florida Conference of the NAACP and the Florida PTA, joined the union in pushing Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, to veto the bill. They claimed the law could hurt public schools by siphoning money away from public education. But Scott signed the bill in June.

After the FEA announced the lawsuit Wednesday, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's education reform group Foundation For Excellence quickly fired off a press release defending the private school choice law.

"There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids," the organization's CEO Patricia Levesque said in the statement. "And sadly there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power."

The new law significantly raises the eligibility caps on the state's tuition tax-credit scholarship program to include more middle-income families.

Currently, students from households making roughly up to $44,000 a year are eligible for tax-credit scholarships. Starting in 2016, the new law will cap the program at about $62,000 a year (basically 260 percent of the federal poverty level), although the amount of the scholarships will vary based on family income levels.

With the higher income cap, the tax-credit scholarships have moved well into the realm of being a school choice policy for both low- and middle-income families.

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