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Florida Supreme Court To Hear Case Challenging Public Schools' Quality

school bus
Indiana Public Media

The Florida Supreme Court on Monday said it will take up a long-running legal battle about whether the state has met its constitutional duty to provide a high-quality system of public schools.

Justices issued a brief order agreeing to consider the nearly decade-old case spearheaded by the group Citizens for Strong Schools. A Leon County circuit judge and the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected the group’s arguments, finding in part that it is not the role of judges to determine education policy.

But in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, the plaintiffs argued that justices should establish that courts can interpret and carry out a 1998 constitutional amendment at the center of the lawsuit. That constitutional amendment, approved by voters, said it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.

“The First DCA held that the duty to provide for public education is reserved to the Legislature and that the judicial branch has absolutely no role in ensuring that this constitutional duty is being fulfilled,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in a Jan. 12 brief. “It is important for the citizens of this state to have a determination by this (Supreme) Court as to whether the education clause is justiciable and enforceable, or merely aspirational.

“As it stands under the First DCA’s opinion, no court has the power to interpret and enforce the state’s constitutional paramount duty under Article IX (of the state Constitution). This interpretation renders the education clause meaningless.”

Monday’s order accepting the case, as is common, did not provide any details about the Supreme Court’s view of the case. But it indicated at least a partial split about whether to hear the dispute.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince agreed to take up the case. Justice Alan Lawson dissented. As happens in many cases, only five justices were involved in the decision about whether to accept the case, with justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston not taking part.

In a brief this month, attorneys for the state argued the Supreme Court should not hear the case, allowing the 1st District Court of Appeal decision to stand. The state argued that the plaintiffs during years of litigation and a lengthy trial in Leon County circuit court failed to provide standards that judges could use in determining whether the constitutional requirements had been met.

“This is not a situation where the court misinterpreted constitutional terms or rejected fixed definitions supplied by the litigants,” the state brief said. “Petitioners’ failure to establish (or even articulate) any consistent, appropriate standards underscores the political nature of these questions and the very problem identified by the trial court and the First District.”

But the plaintiffs, who filed the challenge in 2009, have pointed to statistics that they say shows the state has not provided a high-quality system.

“The trial record shows that hundreds of thousands of children fail to pass required statewide assessments, thousands attend persistently low-performing schools, and achievement varies dependent on race, ethnicity, disability, geography or socioeconomic factors,” the plaintiffs said in the January brief. “There are clear disparities among population groups and across school districts. Superintendents, school board members, and teachers from around the state testified that school districts do not have sufficient resources to establish the conditions necessary to deliver a high quality education for all students. Deficiencies in resources are statewide.”

Photo used under Creative Commons license. 

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