Ministers ask NAACP to withdraw from suit

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Just hours before the 1st District Court of Appeals expressed skepticism whether the Florida Education Association had “standing” in its suit to halt a tax-credit funded program, supporters of the voucher system intensified their push to stop the suit.

A coalition of Black ministers announced that it has more than 6,000 signatures in a petition asking the NAACP to forego its support of the suit. The civil rights organization is a part of the FEA’s suit, which argues that funding education through a tax-credit to businesses is unconstitutional.

Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church which runs Bethel Christian Academy, has been at the forefront of the effort to get the NAACP to withdraw from the suit. He was joined by other ministers last Tuesday just before the court questioned whether the FEA has “standing” for refusing to drop the suit.

“My great organization is on the wrong side of history on this,” said Holmes, a lifelong member of the NAACP.
The tax credit program provides funding for low income parents to send their children to a school of their choice. Money for the program comes from businesses that get a break on certain taxes when they put money in through Step Up for Children, which administers the voucher funding.
“I’m a firm believer that this is the fight of my lifetime and I cannot sit idly by and allow anybody to kick out 80,000 Black boys and girls,” Holmes said. “It would be a disgrace to the vision and dream of Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman.”

Earlier this year, thousands of parents and children who participate in the voucher program took part in a march on Tallahassee. It attracted several members of clergy, including civil rights activist Martin Luther King III.

Some of those parents were in Tallahassee last Tuesday when the appeals court heard arguments from the FEA on why the case should continue.

“To us, the program works,” said Rev. Mark Coast, whose Grace of God Baptist Church runs a voucher-participating prep school in Miami. “I would just call on the NAACP to join us just as Dr. King’s son (MLK III). People don’t show up if it’s not for a good cause. School choice is something that should happen.”

Proponents of the school choice program picked up the support of the Black Alliance for Education Options. Its chairman, Howard Fuller traveled from Milwaukee last week to support the ministers.
Fuller said a victory for the FEA would be the first of several similar suits. He argued that the case has no standing and that the FEA can’t show how the voucher program is harming the public schools since it started in 2002.

“We can no longer see the traditional system as one that can operate in the interest of all children,” said Fuller, former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee. “All over the country there are all sorts of changes that are going on in the traditional system.

“We’ve realized that we have to do something different because there are so many that are simply not being educated in the traditional system.”

The original suit filed by FEA two years ago was thrown out by Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds last year. While the FEA is challenging the voucher system under a Florida law that allows any taxpayer to challenge an unconstitutional use of state money under a doctrine known as “taxpayer standing,” a three judge panel was skeptical.

Fredrick Ingram, vice president of the FEA, told the Outlook that the voucher program segregates the school system. He made his comment while attending an education summit in Tallahassee last week.
He questioned the intent of the program, saying that it takes money away from the public schools through a tax loophole.

“If you want to help us fix our system, help us fix the system but don’t try to usurp the system by offering people a false sense of charter schools,” Ingram said. “You don’t know if the charter school is going to be opened one year to the next (and) sometimes we don’t know who these teachers are. We don’t want to take a chance on public school students being educated in some strange way.”