TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Two decades after voters approved a constitutional amendment that called for a “high quality” system of public schools, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday took up a legal battle about whether the state has properly carried out voters’ wishes.
An attorney for the group Citizens for Strong Schools asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal that rejected the lawsuit. Attorney Jodi Siegel said the case should be sent back to a circuit judge to apply standards that would properly determine whether the state is meeting the constitutional requirements.
“We have current standards and current measurements that are showing significant disparities,” Siegel said. “We had 670,000 children that are failing reading. So this is not a child or two. This is a systemic failure.”
But Rocco Testani, an attorney for the state, argued that the Supreme Court should uphold the lower-court decision. Testani also said the state has made changes since 1998 that have led to significant improvements in the public-school system.
“It has been successful, it has worked,” Testani said. “It is not a system that anyone should be concerned is broken.”
The 1998 constitutional amendment 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 other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2009, arguing that Florida has not properly complied with the constitutional amendment and pointing to issues such as many students not being able to read at grade level. After holding a trial, however, a Leon County circuit judge ruled against the plaintiffs in 2016.
The 1st District Court of Appeal last December upheld that ruling and said arguments about the state failing to adequately provide for public schools “raise political questions not subject to judicial review.”
Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson on Thursday also questioned whether courts should decide such issues, raising the possibility of violating the separation of powers with the legislative and executive branches.
“In order to have any separation of powers whatsoever, you would have to have a very deferential standard of review,” Lawson said as he questioned Siegel. “Otherwise, we’re just going in and saying, ‘Spend the money here, do this, this is the right program,’ based on evidence that’s presented. And that, just to me, cannot be right given that we’re supposed to have three separate branches of government.”
But Justice R. Fred Lewis said courts are designed to interpret “principled concepts” in the Constitution and has long dealt with other difficult issues such as due process and civil rights.
“The Constitution here is the will of the people,” Lewis said while questioning Testani. “It may be difficult, it may be sticky and mucky. But what makes the difference with this (the education issues) as opposed to those other principled concepts?”
Siegel asked the justices to find that courts can resolve the issues about whether the state is properly carrying out the constitutional amendment. She also asked the justices to send the case back to circuit court with instructions about standards that should be used.
If ultimately successful, Siegel said the plaintiffs are asking that the state be required to provide a “remedial plan” for meeting the constitutional requirements.
The Supreme Court typically takes months to rule in such cases.