In a high-stakes decision on the future of public education, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday knocked so-called Amendment 8 off the November ballot, cementing the role of local school boards to create and oversee their public schools.
The 4-3 decision came after oral arguments on Wednesday, with justices asking pointed questions about whether voters could understand the amendment language that, if approved, would essentially take away power from local boards.
Instead, the state would be able to establish and monitor new public schools, particularly non-traditional charters that have sprinkled the landscape in Florida. The rise in charters has bypassed many traditional public schools, creating one of the largest charter school movements in the country.
In the end, though, the amendment was stricken from the ballot.
“The Florida Supreme Court has done right by public education,” said attorney Ronald Meyer, who has been representing the League of Women Voters of Florida and its top officers in a lawsuit that traveled up to the Supreme Court this summer.
“It was a hard argument, I can tell you that,” Meyer said, referring to this week’s oral arguments.
Chief Justice Charles Canady said Wednesday that voters reading the Amendment 8 summary seemingly would have an understanding that local school boards would lose some authority.
Canady and Justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented. But the other four Justices – Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Jorge Labarga – led the way in throwing the school-related measure off the ballot.
That amendment had three different parts: the first two would create term limits for school board members and institute civic instruction for schools. But the third part was the controversial one, with critics saying the language was misleading and didn’t accurately inform voters that a monumental change would take place in public education.
Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement: “We commend the court for taking swift action to protect the integrity of the ballot by removing a proposal that was blatantly and intentionally misleading.”
While other Constitutional Amendments had the potential to be confusing, she said, “the backers of Amendment 8 took it beyond confusion to intentional deceit.”
“The backers of this proposal on the CRC went to great lengths to hide the ball because they realized that Floridians would never knowingly forfeit their right to local control over their local public schools. This case once again illustrates the importance of fair and impartial courts to provide the necessary check against political overreach.”
Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association, released this statement:
“From the perspective of our association’s fundamental values of transparency and local control, this is a victory for Florida’s voters, who deserve an honest and decipherable summary and ballot proposal.”
Not everyone was happy.
John Stemberger, a member of the Florida Constituition Revision Commission, tweeted:
This is precisely why @realDonaldTrump is president. This is precisely why @RepDeSantis will be Governor. This is precisely why voter are fed up at the overreach of the courts & why the @flcourts will be transformed w in a matter of months. #sayfie #FlaPol
And the political committee pushing for the Amendment, 8isGreat.org, was left disappointed by the ruling.
Erika Donalds, a Collier County school board member and the main sponsor of Amendment 8 on the Constitution Revision Commission, said in a statement that “voters deserved to have a say in whether to allow the monopoly over schools to continue, but activist judges have decided otherwise.”
She added that the groups filing the lawsuit “were so busy protecting a system – protecting power and control – that they lost sight of the children, and the families who desire and deserve great public school options. We know that choice, competition, and innovation are the avenues to continuous improvement for our education system. The education monopoly will not reform itself or welcome needed competition without policy changes.”
Overall, it was an active day at the Florida Supreme Court, as the Nov. 6 election draws near and proponents and opponents are jockeying to make sure the various amendments are on or off the ballot.
The Florida Supreme Court decided to keep Constitutional Amendment 6 on the ballot. Commonly known as “Marsy’s Law,” the Constitution Revision Commission says it would create constitutional rights for victims of crime while also raising the mandatory retirement age for state justices and judges from 70 to 75.
“Their (the Florida Supreme Court’s) decision to uphold Amendment 6 on the General Election ballot justly provides Florida voters with the opportunity to decide if they believe our state constitution should provide victims of crimes with rights and protections equal to those already afforded the accused and convicted,” said Greg Ungru, director of the Amendment 6 campaign in Florida.
But the American Civil Liberties Union disagreed.
“We are disappointed, however, that the court did not also reject Amendment 6 for being equally misleading. The rights of victims of crime are already protected by Florida law, though Amendment 6’s appearance on the ballot suggests otherwise,” said Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida.
“The amendment would upset the balance between the rights of victims and people accused of crimes by deleting part of our constitution that balances the rights of everyone involved in a criminal case. In addition, the Constitution Revision Commission did not make it clear to voters that approving Amendment 6 would mean creating a new right for huge corporations to inject themselves into criminal proceedings in even relatively minor cases like shoplifting.”
In addition, Amendments 10 and 13 remain on the ballot, based on Friday’s Florida Supreme Court rulings.
Amendment 10 deals with state and local government structure and operation and creates an office of domestic security and counterterrorism within the department of law enforcement, according to the Constitution Revision Commission.
Amendment 13 phases out commercial dog racing in connection with wagering by 2020, according to the Constitution Revision Commission.
“This ridiculous challenge was a desperate attempt to prevent voters from having a voice on whether greyhound confinement and deaths should continue,” the Yes on 13 campaign said in a statement. “It was filed because greyhound breeders know that when Amendment 13 appears on the ballot, Floridians will vote Yes for the dogs.”
In addition, a Tallahassee judge on Wednesday struck amendments 7, 9, and 11 – ranging from oil drilling and vaping to certain death benefits and property rights – from the Nov. 6 ballot. The state has already appealed the ruling to the First District Court of Appeal.
This story has been updated to include comments from 8isGreat.org, the political committee pushing for Amendment 8.