Florida judge throws out lawsuit that challenged expansion of state's voucher program

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A Florida judge on Wednesday tossed out a lawsuit aimed at blocking an expansion of the state's main private school voucher program.

Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis didn't rule directly on the main points of the lawsuit. But instead he said that those who filed it didn't legally show how the expansion would harm them.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by the state's teacher union on behalf of the parents of three Miami-Dade students and a Lee County teacher. It contended that state legislators did not follow correct procedures when they passed the bill authorizing the expansion.

Ron Meyer, an attorney representing the Florida Education Association, said it was too early to decide whether or not the union would appeal the decision.

"We think he's wrong, and we're going to analyze it," Meyer said.

The lawsuit was being closely watched because it also jeopardized a new program that extends services to disabled children that was included in the same legislation that expanded the state's tax credit scholarship program.

The move doesn't end the legal battle over the $357 million program that currently serves nearly 70,000 students, many of whom attend religious schools.

There's still a separate lawsuit moving ahead that contends the existing 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.

Daniel Woodring, an attorney representing families who receive the vouchers, contended that Tuesday's ruling could bolster an effort to dismiss the second lawsuit.

"This ruling supports the argument that the union also has no standing to challenge the tax credit scholarship program," Woodring said in a statement.

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 program is limited 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.

The lawsuit filed two months later contends legislators violated a requirement in the state constitution that bills can cover only one subject when they passed the measure.

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