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Florida's Supreme Court Declines Charter School Battle Case

Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to hear a case that challenged the constitutionality of a law that gives power to the State Board of Education in the approval of charter schools.

Justices turned down an appeal by the Palm Beach County School Board, which argued the law violates part of the state Constitution that gives local school boards the authority to “operate, control and supervise” public schools in their districts. As is common, the Supreme Court issued a one-page order that did not explain its reasons for declining to hear the case.

The case stems from a decision by the Palm Beach County School Board to deny an application by Florida Charter Educational Foundation, Inc. and South Palm Beach Charter School to open a charter school. The Palm Beach board denied the application on grounds such as finding that the proposal lacked innovative learning methods, according to a court document.

Under part of state law, the applicants appealed the Palm Beach board's decision to a panel known as the state Charter School Appeal Commission, which makes recommendations to the State Board of Education. The commission recommended that the proposed charter school be approved, and the State Board of Education subsequently issued an order reversing the Palm Beach board's denial of the application.

The Palm Beach board took the dispute to the 4th District Court of Appeal, contending that the law giving the power to the State Board of Education was unconstitutional because it infringed on the powers of the local board. Charter schools are public schools, though they are often run by private entities.

A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in January upheld the constitutionality of the law.

“The Florida Constitution … creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole,” the ruling said. “This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board's local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated --- and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision by the Florida Constitution.”

But the appeals court also found that the Charter School Appeal Commission had not provided enough of a “fact-based justification” to support its recommendation that the proposed charter school should be approved. The court ordered that the commission provide such a justification, which would then go back to the State Board of Education for a final decision.

The Palm Beach County School Board in May filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case and find the law unconstitutional. The brief said the appeals-court decision would upset a “constitutional balance by taking the decision of whether to create a public charter school away from popularly-elected local boards, and placing it in the hands of the SBE (State Board of Education). In doing so, the lower court takes out of the hands of local voters the ability to hold local board members accountable for this aspect of the county's school system.”

But in a brief filed in June, attorneys for the charter-school applicants said the Supreme Court should not take up the case. The attorneys focused, in part, on the fact that the appeals court sent the dispute back to the Charter School Appeal Commission and the State Board of Education because of the need for a “fact-based justification” for approval of the proposed school.

“The Florida Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction to hear this appeal because the decision below is not final,” the applicants' brief said. “The Fourth District explicitly reversed and remanded the case back to the State Board of Education (and its subsidiary tribunal, the Charter School Appeal Commission) for a complete redo of the fact hearing.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.