- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s teachers union announced Thursday that it is dropping one of two lawsuits it had pending against the state’s main private-school voucher program.

The move comes after the Florida Education Association lost the first round in its legal battle to block legislation that expanded the current program. Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis in late December tossed the lawsuit after ruling that those who filed it didn’t show how the expansion would harm them.

JoAnne McCall, vice president of the association, said her group made the decision to not appeal the ruling after meeting with newly installed Senate President Andy Gardiner to discuss the state’s education system.

“We have opened a dialogue with the Senate president on a broad range of issues, including testing, special-needs students and other public education concerns of paramount importance to the FEA,” McCall said in a statement. “We look forward to working together for the benefit of our children.”

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, was a prime backer of SB 850, which expanded the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. That’s because the legislation passed last year also authorized the creation of a separate voucher program that extended services to disabled children. Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program was first set up in 2001. It allows companies to receive tax credits from the state if they donate money to organizations that hand out the private-school vouchers. Currently the $357 million program serves nearly 70,000 students, many of whom attend religious schools.

McCall and the FEA insist they will continue to move ahead with a separate lawsuit that argues that this program violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and by directing tax money to religious institutions. This second lawsuit uses the same arguments that led the Florida Supreme Court to throw out a voucher program for children attending low-performing schools that was created at the urging of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In a video recently placed on the FEA website, McCall insists that her organization “will never give up” and is prepared to take this second lawsuit all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The tax-credit scholarship program is limited now to families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But the expansion approved by legislators last May would let middle-income families receive partial vouchers starting in 2016. The law also removes a requirement that students in grades 6 through 12 had to attend a public school the prior year in order to be eligible.

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