Florida teachers and unions filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of a new law that requires local unions to represent 50 percent or more of instructional personnel.
The law, which passed during this year’s legislative session and took effect Sunday, enacted a series of major changes in the public-school system.
Known as House Bill 7055, the measure created a new “Hope” scholarship program that will allow students who are bullied to transfer to private schools. It expanded financial support for Gardiner scholarships, which provide aid to disabled students. And it raised evidentiary standards for school boards trying to terminate charter schools.
But the lawsuit, which was filed by the Florida Education Association, nine local teachers’ unions, eight teachers and eight local union representatives, is aimed at a specific provision in the law that would result in local unions losing their certification if membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the collective-bargaining process.
Loss of certification would force the local unions to go through the costly, time-consuming process of holding elections to renew their right to represent teachers. If certification is lost, the local unions could not represent the instructional personnel in negotiations with local school boards on issues such as teacher pay, leave policies and planning days.
The lawsuit, filed in Leon County circuit court, alleges the new law is the result of a legislative “train” bill that contained multiple topics and violated a provision in the state Constitution that requires each law to “embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith.”
The new law “contains multiple subjects that have little relationship to one another and absolutely no relationship to the recertification requirement contained” in the measure, the lawsuit said.
“There is no natural or logical connection between education and union density or requiring a public employee union to recertify its status as the exclusive bargaining unit for members of the instructional staff of a school district,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also alleges the union certification provision violates the “equal protection” clause in the state Constitution because it treats teachers’ unions differently from other public-employee unions, including those that represent law enforcement members.
The constitutional right for public employees to participate in a collective-bargaining process is also “impaired” by the new law, as well as the right of non-union members to benefit from the negotiations, the lawsuit said.
Melissa Rudd, a high school English teacher and president of the Wakulla Classroom Teachers Association who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the new law is the latest in a series of policies undermining public school teachers, including “high-stakes” testing and the elimination of annual contracts for new teachers.
“This really is like the last straw,” Rudd said. “We’re not feeling defeated. We’re feeling angry. … We are tired of being the target of legislators. We want to get back to focusing on our kids and improving everything that we can.”
Ron Meyer, a lawyer representing the teachers, said the lawsuit is specifically aimed at eliminating the union certification provision. But he said if the courts find the law violated the Constitution’s “one-subject” provision, it could invalidate the entire new law, including provisions like the Hope scholarships.
Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, which has about 140,000 members, said 13 local unions are below the 50 percent certification threshold, but that the bargaining units are working to increase membership and meet the requirement.
The lawsuit was filed against the three-member Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, the agency responsible for overseeing the collective-bargaining process.
In interviews Friday, incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, defended the new law, arguing it was part of the Legislature’s effort to expand school “choice” programs, providing more educational options for students and their families.
Galvano said he supports the public school system, noting he holds an annual golf tournament that raises money for the Manatee County schools. But he also said the recent legislative initiatives are aimed at focusing more on the students rather than the existing institutions.
“If you focus on the student, then all forms of education are important,” he said. “They have to back away from that institutional view and start looking at the student view. And I don’t think the suit will be successful.”
—- News Service staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.