TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of parents and children in identical green-yellow shirts rallied Tuesday in support of the state's private school voucher program, which helps low-income and minority students attend private schools.
The shirts read "Drop the Suit" -- referring to the teacher's union lawsuit that calls for an end to the voucher program.
About a week ago, teachers frustrated with the state's education system held their own protest against everything from high-stakes testing to a teacher bonuses program. This time, however, it was the union that represents the teachers that was the target of protest.
Martin Luther King III, a long-time supporter of school choice programs, and other speakers likened the battle for the voucher program to previous civil rights struggles.
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"This is about justice, this is about righteousness, this is about truth," said King, the son the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "This is about freedom: The freedom to choose what's best for your family."
King and others questioned why the teacher's union, the Florida Education Association, has refused to drop its challenge to the state's tax credit scholarship program that handed out vouchers this year to more than 78,000 students. The union, which organized last week's teacher protest, is the lead group behind a lawsuit that contends the program is unconstitutional.
Florida's tax-credit scholarship program was first set up in 2001 when Jeb Bush was governor. It allows companies to receive tax credits from the state if they donate money to organizations that hand out the private-school vouchers. The program is limited now to families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but the eligibility criteria will be expanded in the fall.
The union filed its lawsuit in 2014 after state legislators expanded the eligibility. A circuit judge ruled last year that the groups filing the lawsuit did not have a legal right or "standing" to challenge the program. But the union appealed.
The lawsuit sparked a bitter fight and supporters of the voucher program have aired television ads calling on the union to end its legal battle.
Several times King and others had the crowd chanting "Drop the Suit" in unison and ended the rally singing "We Shall Overcome."
Union leaders said afterward they have no plans to end their legal battle.
"What are they so afraid of going to the courts to ensure this voucher scheme is legal?" association president Joanne McCall said in a statement. "Let's let the courts decide this once and for all."