Court hears education lawsuit arguments
Florida Supreme Court hears 9-year-old school adequacy case
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a 9-year-old case that maintains the state is failing to provide a “high quality” public education to all students, as demanded in the state constitution.
The case also challenges the adequacy of Florida school funding and questions the constitutionality of two of Florida’s popular school voucher programs. Those programs together pay for more than 100,000 students to attend private schools.
Those who filed the lawsuit against the state in 2009, including several Orlando parents, have lost earlier legal battles, with judges in lower courts ruling their challenge dealt with “political questions”
that could not be answered by a court.
The state’s top court agreed in May to hear the case, Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education.
During oral arguments Thursday, Jodi Siegel, who represents the parents and advocacy groups that sued, told justices the lower courts erred in their rulings. The state has the “ultimate responsibility” for public education in Florida and has failed its constitutional duties when “there are substantial amounts of children in our state who are failing.”
Rocco Testani, the attorney for the state, said the lower court rulings should be upheld. “The weight of the evidence supported the state’ s position,” he said.
An attorney for the Institute of Justice, which has litigated school choice cases nationwide, argued alongside the state on behalf of scholarship students, telling the justices there is nothing unconstitutional about the state’s voucher programs.
The case centers on an amendment to the state constitution added by Florida voters in 1998. That section calls education a “paramount duty” of the state and requires a “high quality system of uniform free public schools.” At issue is whether that clause provides a measurable standard by which courts could judge educational success.
The lawsuit — which took aim at many of the education reforms ushered in by former Gov. Jeb Bush — charged the state has failed to meet that standard, as evidenced by the many students who fail state tests and struggle to read on grade level. Siegel noted that some Florida students do well, but academic success varies by district, school and student population.
“This is a really important case,” said Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mother who helped found Fund Education Now, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.
Since it was filed, Oropeza said, the state has expanded some of the efforts the lawsuit sought to stop. “It’s just been a fullbore assault with everything that has to do with public education,” she added.
The legal case also called state funding inadequate, citing testimony from public school leaders, and argued the McKay and Tax Credit Scholarship programs violated the constitution because the voucher programs send students to private schools that aren’t part of a “uniform” public school system.
That last argument worries school-choice advocates, including Margot Logan, a Seminole County mother who uses a McKay scholarship to send her daughter — who has significant physical disabilities — to a private school
Her daughter, now 18, did well in public school until she started middle school, Logan said, when there seemed to be no appropriate class for a child with multiple physical problems but normal intelligence.
A private school in Orange County gives her daughter the physical therapy and intellectual stimulation she needs, Logan said, and the McKay scholarship makes it financially doable.
“It’s just been such a blessing to have the McKay,” Logan said. “I’m just hoping for a just outcome in this situation.”
Siegel told the justices the case should be sent back to the trial court and decided based on the standards of the 1998 amendment, though she said they were not arguing for any specific amount of school funding.
Testani said the trial court already looked at the evidence and found Florida schools had made significant progress, to the benefit of their students, even as it ruled school decisions didn’t rest with judges.
The lower courts that heard the case said it was up to the Florida Legislature and the governor, not judges, to set education policy and budgets. A circuit judge, who ruled after a four-week trial in 2016, wrote that the lawsuit raised “political questions best resolved in the political arena.” That judge also said the state had made education a “top priority,” implementing solid policies and providing adequate funding.
The First District Court of Appeal, which ruled in favor of the state in December, agreed there was nothing “that would empower judges” to make decisions about educational policies, funding or programs because those are rightly the domain of elected leaders.
Justice Alan Lawson seemed of that mind when he asked Siegel, “You want us to decide ...to do something different than the Legislature decided?”
But Justice Fred Lewis asked the state if it was arguing the standard was “unenforceable” because it was hard to define — and then noted courts have wrestled with other “principled concepts” in the state and federal constitutions, from due process to civil rights.
“The constitution here is the will of the people,” he said. “It may be difficult. It may be sticky and mucky.”
Justice Ricky Polston, viewed as part of the court’s conservative minority, removed himself from the case on Monday, but the order filed with the court provides no reason why he will not hear the case.
The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments in a nearly decade-old school case.