Duval School Board Mulls Legal Action Against Controversial Education Law

Jul 19, 2017

The Duval County School Board agreed, Wednesday, to ask city lawyers to explore the details of a possible lawsuit against a controversial new state education law.
Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News

The Duval County School Board is asking city lawyers to explore a possible lawsuit against a controversial new state education law


The district is one of several mulling legal action, while school boards in Broward and St. Lucie counties have already voted to file suits.

The law, passed as House Bill 7069, is known for its “Schools of Hope” provision, giving districts less time to improve low-performing schools before they’re shut down and financially incentivizing charter schools to open nearby. It also requires districts to share local tax dollars with charters for building and maintenance projects.

Many Duval School Board members think the new law might be unconstitutional, for a few reasons. First, districts are no longer allowed to amend charter school contracts to fit the community’s needs.

“This erodes (districts’) constitutional authority to have control and supervise schools,”’ said Karen Chastain, the school board’s legal advisor. The Florida Constitution says school boards have the authority to “operate, control and supervise” schools within their district.

Second, the law establishes different rules for charters, like less strenuous teaching requirements. Essentially, opponents argue, this law limits district control over the privately run schools and creates two separate education systems, which they say seems to violate the constitutional guarantee of “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.”

However, Duval School Board member Scott Shine isn’t convinced legal action is smart. He said it could lead to more negative repercussions for students, including less funding, in retaliation.

“I don’t think another adversary move is going to help us rebuild our relationship with Tallahassee,” Shine said Wednesday.

He added, if the suit filed by other districts is successful, Duval will still reap the benefits without damaging its relationship with Tallahassee lawmakers.

Shine thinks it’s probably best to work with local state representatives to try to repair the bill’s problems.

“Bring the delegation members in here and see if we can hash it out,” he said. A meeting with them is in the works.

However, Board Chair Paula Wright doesn’t agree with his strategy. She said she met with legislators all year and tried to educate them, but the bill still passed. She’s pushing for a lawsuit.

“I will vote right now for litigation on behalf of children,” she said. “We must now stand as a board with a sense of urgency to say, ‘How are we going to ensure that our students continue to receive a quality education in the buildings that they want?’”

Board member Lori Hershey, who took several trips to Tallahassee to advocate against the bill’s passage, agreed with Wright.

“I have had the conversations,” Hershey said. “We do need to stand up to Tallahassee and not be afraid.”

However, Board Vice Chair Ashley Smith Juarez said she’d prefer to pump the brakes. Although she opposes the law, the state hasn’t established rules for implementing it, and they will require public comment before being finalized. So, she said, entering into a suit might be premature.

“I simply think we have tools in our toolbox we have not used that could be used,” she said. “We have the opportunity to also get public to exercise their voices.”

The board is asking the city’s Office of General Counsel to draft potential arguments and provide cost estimates and possible timelines for a suit.

Chastain, the legal advisor, said if the district does vote to enter a lawsuit it might be a wise idea to combine efforts with other districts. Broward County has agreed to spend up to $25,000 on initial legal fees, as reported by the Miami Herald, and St. Lucie County agreed to spending $10,000 as reported by the Treasure Coast Palm.

In addition to planning a meeting with local legislators, board members decided Wednesday to support a referendum against the law, as well as to host community conversations about it.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.