- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s main teachers union said Monday it will not drop its legal fight against the state’s largest private school voucher program despite a judge throwing out the group’s lawsuit.

The Florida Education Association announced its appeal of that decision the same day that former Gov. Jeb Bush made his bid for president official. Bush was a key backer of the program that offers private school vouchers to low-income families and his campaign even mentioned it during his event in Miami.

The union maintains the voucher program, which serves nearly 70,000 students, is unconstitutional, but Circuit Judge George Reynolds rejected the lawsuit in May. Reynolds did not address the merits of the lawsuit, but instead ruled the groups filing the lawsuit did not have a legal right or “standing” to challenge the program.

“We find it alarming that parents, teachers and individuals are not being allowed by the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers, particularly since the courts ruled a previous voucher scheme unconstitutional,” said Joanne McCall, vice president of the FEA.

The legal battle has been closely watched as supporters have mounted an advertising and public relations campaign calling for the lawsuit to be dropped because of its potential impact on families using the vouchers. Last week the Florida School Boards Association voted to end its participation in the lawsuit.

The tax credit scholarship program as the voucher program is officially called allows businesses to get credits on their state tax bills if they donate to an organization that gives vouchers to children in low-income families.

Most of the children who receive the vouchers attend religious schools. While it is now limited to low-income families the program will expand to middle-income families starting in 2016.

“While we are disappointed the plaintiffs appealed the ruling, we will defend the interests of these children all the way to the Florida Supreme Court if we need to,” said Howard Coker, an attorney representing parents of children enrolled in the program.

Bush signed the program into law in 2001. Two years earlier Bush set up the state’s first voucher program for children attending low-performing schools. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately declared it unconstitutional, saying it violated the state’s “paramount duty” to have a uniform and high quality system of “free public schools.” A lower court had also ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds it violated a provision that says no aid may be given by the state to religious institutions.

The lawsuit contended that the tax credit program violated the constitution the same way the previous program did.

But Reynolds ruled that taxpayers can’t challenge the program because the money is not handed out annually by the Florida Legislature in the state budget.

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