VICTORY For School Choice In Florida

2018 is off to a promising start for families in the Sunshine State. In December, Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the state’s two largest school choice programs in the face of a sprawling legal attack by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools. The ruling comes after nearly a decade of litigation about the general “adequacy” of Florida’s educational system, and it marks a major victory for educational choice.

IJ intervened in the case on behalf of several families who use the state’s two most popular programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) and the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities (McKay Program). And we successfully defended both programs. First, the appellate court recognized that because the FTC involved private tax credits—as opposed to public money—the opponents of choice did not have standing, as taxpayers, to challenge it.

The court then turned its attention to the McKay Program, which provides scholarships to approximately 30,000 students with disabilities in Florida. The appellate court explained that the McKay Program “offers a beneficial option for disabled students to help ensure they can have a ‘high quality’ education.” The court extolled the virtues of the program, finding that “[r]esearch has shown that the McKay program has a positive effect on the public schools, both in terms of lessening the incentive to over-identify students and by increasing the quality of services of the students with disabilities in the public schools.” In plain English: School choice works.

This case involved a unique opportunity for IJ. Typically, a legislature passes an educational choice program, the constitutionality of the program is challenged in court, and IJ immediately intervenes on behalf of parents to help defend the program. In this case, IJ intervened after the other side—several years after the lawsuit was first filed—started to challenge specific school choice programs.

After years of litigation (including a five-week trial), we prevailed. In doing so, IJ successfully defended Florida’s thriving educational choice programs, which more than 130,000 students in the state rely on to meet their educational needs.

After years of litigation (including a five-week trial), we prevailed. In doing so, IJ successfully defended Florida’s thriving educational choice programs, which more than 130,000 students in the state rely on to meet their educational needs. Importantly, the court held that these programs are constitutional despite the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in Bush v. Holmes, which struck down Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program on the grounds that it was not “uniform” with the state’s general public school system. The court concluded here that, despite Bush v. Holmes, “[i]t is difficult to perceive how a modestly sized program designed to provide parents of disabled children with more educational opportunities to ensure access to a high quality education could possibly violate the text or spirit of a constitutional requirement of a uniform system of free public schools.”

Even in light of historically unfavorable Florida Supreme Court precedent, the FTC and McKay programs continue to flourish. That is a concrete result of IJ’s indefatigable defense of educational choice reform in Florida. And as a new year starts, IJ stands ready to defend the right of parents to choose the best education for their children whenever that freedom comes under attack.

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