FL Supreme Court ends longstanding education lawsuit, ruling against advocates fighting for better schools

high school classroom
High school classroom. Photo via pixabay.

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday ended a nearly 10-year-long education lawsuit, ruling against attorneys and advocacy groups fighting to improve education in Florida – particularly for poor minority students.

In the close 4-3 opinion, the High Court rejected the assertion that Florida’s K-12 education system violates the state’s Constitution, though lawyers had argued that Florida had failed to provide a high-quality education to all schoolchildren.

The Supreme Court’s decision also rested on concerns related to “judicial intrusion,” meaning which branches of government should be overseeing public school funding and policies. The Legislature, in particular, appropriates funding for schools across the state.

The Supreme Court’s ruling made it clear that the court would be opposed to intruding into the Legislature’s appropriations power and injecting itself into matters of education policy-making and oversight.

“We decline the invitation for the courts to overstep their bounds,” the ruling stated.

The majority opinion came from Chief Justice Charles Canady, Justices Al Lawson and Jorge Labarga, and associate justice Edward LaRose – a substitute for Justice Ricky Polston, who had recused himself.

The dissent came from the three retiring justices considered liberal-leaning – Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis. They all joined the Supreme Court two decades ago. Pariente and Lewis were appointed by the late Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles and Quince was appointed jointly by Chiles and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc, and other plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against the Florida Department of Education and other defendants, had hoped for a win.

But lead lawyer Jodi Siegel on Friday acknowledged that the longstanding case appears to be over for good.

The lawsuit launched in November 2009, with plaintiffs asserting that Florida’s K-12 system had violated the state’s Constitution. Attorneys said the state had failed to provide a uniform, efficient and high- quality system for public schools that would allow students to obtain a high-quality education.

The plaintiffs wanted the state to submit a remedial plan to fix deficiencies in the public school system.

Those deficiencies, according to the trial record, showed 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.”

In addition, “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.”

However, the trial court highlighted the positives of Florida’s education system, saying:

“The weight of the evidence shows that the state has made education a top priority both in terms of implementation of research-based education policies and reforms, as well as education funding. The State has an accountability and assessment system that is rated among the best in the nation, resulting in more “A” graded schools over time. The State has also adopted rigorous teacher certification, training and evaluation standards, resulting in over 94% of courses being taught by teachers who are “highly qualified” under federal standards.”

In the end, the Florida Supreme Court went along with the views of the trial court and the First District Court of Appeals.

Justice Barbara Pariente provided a scathing dissent, saying, “With its decision today, the majority of this Court fails to provide any judicial remedy for the students who are at the center of this lawsuit—African-American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, and students who attend school in poorer school districts or attend persistently low-performing schools.”

Meanwhile, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano praised the Supreme Court ruling, and issued a statement:

“I am pleased to see today’s ruling which for the third time affirms the constitutionality of policy and budget choices on education made by the Florida Legislature that have dramatically improved both parental choice and student performance over the last two decades. I am certain parents across our state are relieved to know that for a third time the attempts to deprive tens of thousands of children with unique abilities and children from low-income families of the educational opportunities their parents selected have been soundly defeated in a court of law. Separation of powers is a hallmark of our form of government, and I am pleased to see the Florida Supreme Court affirm that the responsibility to write the state budget lies with the Florida Legislature.”

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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