Tax Rebates for Florida Charter Schools OK’d

     TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Public school advocates cannot challenge the constitutionality of a Florida law that gives tax rebates to people who contribute to private schools, a state appeals court ruled.
     A three-judge panel affirmed a ruling from Leon County Court, in the state capital, that the plaintiffs/appellants lack standing to attack the constitutionality of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
     Numerous plaintiffs sued Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, claiming the Tax Credit law “violates the Florida Constitution by diverting public funds from Florida’s public schools to religiously affiliated schools and by using taxpayer funds to create a parallel and non-uniform system of schools,” First District Court of Appeal Judge Lori Rowe wrote in her case summary.
     Plaintiffs included a Democratic state senator, religious leaders, the Florida Education Association, teachers and parents, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
     The program grants scholarships to students from poor families, allowing them to attend a public, private or religious school of their choice, outside of their financially distressed district.
     Scholarships are funded by private donations, with the government handing out tax rebates on oil and gas, alcohol and insurance premiums to compensate the donors for their good deeds.
     The plaintiffs say the money spent on tax credits is public money, and sending it to religious institutions is an unconstitutional “diversion of resources.”
     The trial court denied both aspects of the claim: that the plaintiffs did not prove that the program had reduced funding for public schools, nor that they had been harmed by it, and therefore had standing to sue.
     The appeals court agreed, citing Florida’s special-injury requirement for challenging governmental action.
     To meet that standard, the plaintiffs must prove the law caused them special injury “distinct from other members of the community at large.” Otherwise, the plaintiffs would be asking the court to overstep its bounds by second-guessing lawmakers, the judges said.
     “The rationale for the special injury rule is grounded in the doctrine of separation of powers and requires courts to accord proper deference to legislative actions, rather than opening courthouse doors to disgruntled taxpayers who are not pleased with the taxing and spending decisions of their elected representatives,” the 30-page ruling states.
     The panel also found that claims of reduced funding to public schools were speculative.
     It agreed that the trial “was not bound to ‘defer to a speculative and conclusory allegation, such as pleaded here, that some plaintiffs have been “injured”‘” by the law.
     The appeals court also rejected the argument that the plaintiffs had legal standing under an exception to the special-injury rule, which allows taxpayers to sue the government if a law violates a specific constitutional amendment.
     Because the program is funded through private donations, its scholarship grants do not cost public schools money, and though donors do receive tax credits, the plaintiffs cannot prove that the credited taxes would have been used to fund public schools, the panel said. Therefore the plaintiffs have no standing to claim that the state exceeded its taxing and spending authority.
     Giving private citizens tax relief “does not involve a disbursement from public treasury,” and is not prohibited by the state constitution, the court said.
     State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, a plaintiff, insists both courts got it wrong.
     “As a taxpayer, I have the right to challenge what I believe to be an inappropriate use of tax dollars,” she wrote in an email.
     “Florida’s primary responsibility is to fund a free public education system. Until public education is funded appropriately, [the state] does not have the latitude to divert tax funds to other systems.”
     Representatives from the NAACP did not respond to a request for comment.
     Judges Scott Makar and Ross Bilbrey concurred.
     The ruling is not final until time expires for the filing of a motion for a rehearing.

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