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Families say FEA's school choice lawsuit will hurt special needs kids

Six families -- and their powerful attorneys -- want to intervene in a lawsuit challenging a controversial new school choice law.

The families have asked a judge to help defend the law, which creates scholarships for children with profound special needs. The money can be used for private-school tuition, tutoring, educational materials and various types of therapy. The average award is expected to be about $10,000.

The scholarship program came into being as sweeping education bill that also expanded the school voucher program, created collegiate high schools, and addressed middle-school reform. It passed largely along party lines on the last day of session.

Earlier this month, the statewide teachers union challenged the constitutionality of the law, saying it violates a requirement that each pieces of legislation be limited to a single subject. The families want to join the existing defendants: Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

The lawsuit is pending, but the plaintiffs have indicated they do not oppose allowing the families to join the case.

On Thursday, five of the six families held a news conference to say litigation should not get in the way of the scholarship program.

"The funds provided for would do untold good, we’re convinced of this," said Mary Kurnik, a Tampa mother whose 12-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism and other disorders that affect his learning ability.

The families were joined by representatives from the Goldwater Institute, which has defended similar school choice programs in the past, and former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which considered the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts among its top legislative priorities this year. Former state Sen. Al Lawson, who has lobbied on behalf of pro-voucher organizations, also attended.

So far, about more than 1,800 Florida parents have begun applications for a scholarship. Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that manages the program, hopes to begin awarding the accounts next week, spokesman Ron Matus said.

The total state budget for the first year of the program is $18.4 million.

The FEA has said that the scholarships for children with special needs is not the target of their lawsuit as much as they oppose the controversial way in which various stand-alone education proposals were combined into an omnibus bill on the second-to-last day of session.

But the parents said they don’t blame Republican lawmakers and voucher advocates for tying their issue to more contentious measures and now using them as the face of their defense of Senate Bill 850.

"I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it," said Ashli McCall, a Tallahassee mother who also hopes to join the lawsuit and said she is a certified teacher who disagrees with the union’s tactics.