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Sides battle over 'high quality' schools requirement

Sides battle over 'high quality' schools requirement (The News Service of Florida)

When Florida voters went to the polls in 1998, more than 70 percent approved a constitutional amendment that required the state to provide an “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality” system of public schools.

But two decades later, the Florida Supreme Court is preparing to wade into a long-running battle about whether the state has adequately carried out the requirement --- and whether judges should even decide questions that attorneys for the state describe as a “political thicket.”

The state last week filed a 72-page brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal that rejected the lawsuit, which has been led by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools.

In the brief, the state’s attorneys argued that the issues raised by the plaintiffs are “non-justiciable political questions” that courts should not resolve. But even if the Supreme Court disagrees with that argument, the state’s attorneys contend that Florida has made “dramatic improvements” in student performance, dispelling the notion that it has not provided an adequate education system.

“Florida’s school reforms and education policies --- most of which were implemented after the 1998 constitutional amendment … --- have led to steady and impressive gains in student performance,” the brief said.

But in a brief filed last month, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court should overturn the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling and send the case back to a circuit judge under an “appropriate standard of review” to determine if the state has met the constitutional requirements.

In questioning the quality of education provided in the state, the plaintiffs’ brief pointed to issues such as disparities in student test performances in different counties and by different racial and ethnic groups.

“The (1998 constitutional) revision mandates that the state give all children in Florida a chance to obtain a high quality education,” the plaintiffs’ brief said. “Parents allege this is not occurring. But the First DCA (District Court of Appeal) ruled that, regardless, courts have no power to ensure it does. That decision was an abdication of the courts’ core responsibility to act when other branches of government’s acts violate the Constitution.”

The 1998 amendment was placed on the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a panel that meets every 20 years to consider revisions to the Constitution. Voters approved the measure at the same time they elected Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who ushered in major --- and often-controversial --- changes to the education system that continue to reverberate in 2018.

Among other things, Bush and his supporters backed expansion of school choice, high-stakes testing and grading the performances of public schools.

The constitutional amendment, in part, said it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.

Citizens for Strong Schools and the other plaintiffs initially filed the lawsuit in 2009. A Leon County circuit judge ruled in favor of the state in 2016, and the 1st District Court of Appeal followed suit in December.

After the plaintiffs took the issue to the Supreme Court in January, the state argued justices should not take it up. But the Supreme Court decided in April to hear the case. It has not scheduled oral arguments.

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