The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday wrestled with whether voters could understand the language and purpose of a Constitutional amendment that could make monumental changes to the way public schools are created and controlled.
It’s a high-stakes decision for public education: Should so-called Amendment 8 be put back on the ballot? And time is of the essence: The deadline for printing ballots and mailing them to overseas voters is between Sept. 6 and Sept. 22.
If the measure gets on the ballot and voters approve it, local school boards would likely lose power to establish and oversee certain new public schools, such as non-traditional charter schools, while the state would be able to create and oversee those new schools.
Whether voters can figure out what all that means from language in the amendment became the crux of spirited arguments and pointed questions Wednesday.
A circuit court judge had thrown out Amendment 8 last month, saying the amendment language was misleading and didn’t accurately inform voters. That led the Supreme Court to decide if the amendment can be understood and should be put back on the Nov 6 ballot.
Chief Justice Charles Canady said Wednesday that voters reading the amendment summary seemingly would have an understanding that local school boards would lose some authority.
That part of the summary states: “Currently, district school boards have a constitutional duty to operate, control, and supervise all public schools. The amendment maintains a school board’s duties to public schools it establishes, but permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”
If that’s understandable, there could be a reason to put the amendment back on the ballot.
However, the title of the amendment – “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” – makes no mention of the fact that local school boards would lose authority or that a state entity of some kind would create and monitor schools. And the rest of the language in the amendment is not clear to voters, according to attorney Ronald Meyer.
“The people are going to be fooled” said Meyer, who has been representing the League of Women Voters of Florida and its top officers in the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court arguments Wednesday.
The amendment includes term limits for school board members and civic instruction in schools, but the controversial provision is what Meyer calls a “seismic shift” that is buried in the rest of the amendment.
Justice Barbara Pariente made a similar observation, saying voters will move along in the language on term limits and civic instruction and then come to the last section – related to public schools – that is something far different.
“As a voter, I would find that to be really hiding the ball,” Pariente said.
Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Bell argued Wednesday in support of the amendment language, as did charter school organizations in briefs to the Supreme Court. Those groups want the measure to be put back on the ballot in November.
Of concern by teacher unions and other groups is that if the amendment passes, even more charter schools run by private groups will be created across Florida.
Some two decades ago, Florida introduced charters, but today, that sprinkling of new schools has grown into one of the largest charter movements in the country, with tens of thousands of Florida students flocking to charters and bypassing traditional public schools.
With more than 650 charter schools, Florida’s charters now represent about 16 percent of all public schools in the state — the second highest percentage in the country, according to 2015-16 data from the U.S. Department of Education.