A divided appeals court on Wednesday ruled against the state’s effort to stop a lawsuit over school funding.
The case now may head to the Florida Supreme Court, which could then decide whether a trial court can hear the case. In an 8-7 opinion, the First District Court of Appeals said trial courts do have the ability to decide whether the state has violated a constitutional provision guaranteeing a high-quality public school system.
The state had argued that the lawsuit was too political and broad for a trial court to decide, and it was more appropriate for the Legislature to determine issues of funding and education policies. The complaint alleges that “Florida’s public schools are not safe and secure, that graduation rates are too low, that student promotion and retention policies are ineffective, that results of achievement tests reveal various inadequacies, and much more,” according to Wednesday’s opinion.
The lawsuit, Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Schools (see the full text of the opinion below), was filed two years ago in Leon County. Two education non-profit groups and several parents of public school students said the Legislature and state failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to properly fund and operate high-quality and safe schools.
Neil Chonin, the litigation director for Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel, which represents the non-profits and parents, said the case is about more than adequate school funding, focusing on graduation and retention rates, test scores, teacher salaries and safety as well as whether schools are properly funded.
“It’s not just a funding question, that’s just part of the puzzle,” Chonin said.
But the ensuing legal battle has focused not on the merits of that question, but on whether courts should be able to hear the case at all. The state filed a “writ of prohibition” designed to prevent the trial courts from considering the case because of its broad focus on school funding and other policies set by the Legislature.
The eight justices in the majority said though they disagree with the state, “we do so with utmost respect for a coequal branch of government; and do so even though we are well aware that the constitutional duty to ensure that adequate provision is made for public education is the Legislature’s in the first instance.”
Jon Mills, an attorney who is also representing Citizens for Strong Schools, said it is likely the Florida Supreme Court will hear the case, given that the appeals court certified it as a “question of great public importance,” a key step in getting the high court to take a case. Mills said it is the first time the Florida Supreme Court would weigh in on the new provision regarding education in the Florida Constitution since it was included in 1998, and could have widespread implications for future lawsuits over the quality of schools requirement.
“This is potentially one of the highest-impact cases you can have,” Mills said.
Jennifer Meale, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, said “we are reviewing the opinion and will discuss it with our clients.” It could be heard by the Supreme Court even if the state doesn’t appeal. Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are current Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, former Education Commissioner Eric Smith, and the State Board of Education.
“Certainly,” Justice Clayton Roberts wrote in his dissent, “the purpose of the amendment was to send a signal to the policymakers of Florida stressing the importance of education. However, even though the additional language clearly expresses an emphasis on education, it does not provide any more of a justiciable standard than the ‘adequate provision’ command did in Coalition. The terms ‘efficient, safe, secure, and high quality’ do not lend themselves to a ‘yes or no’ evaluation. The terms are adjectives of degree, meaning that even an unlimited amount of resources and ideal policies and administration could not provide a guarantee of perfect efficiency, safety, security or quality. The Constitution does not provide guidance to courts in determining how efficient, safe, secure or high quality the school system is required to be.”
Even though the legal squabbling is focusing on the court’s ability to hear the case, Chonin said the hope is that eventually the Legislature, through court action, will be required to “comply with the constitution.”
“But that remedy stage is down the road,” Chonin said.
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida