Judge promises quick ruling in dispute over education amendment

charter schools

A Leon County judge indicated Friday that he hopes to rule by Monday on whether to strip from the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that could deprive county school boards of oversight of charter schools.

“I hesitate to overpromise and under deliver, but my goal is to have this decided by Monday morning,” Circuit Judge John Cooper said following oral arguments in a challenge to the proposal.

Monday, at 5 p.m., also happens to be the deadline the Florida Supreme Court has given the state to respond to a separate lawsuit challenging six of the eight amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission.

That challenge argues the commission improperly “bundled” more than a single proposal within each of the challenged amendments.

The Florida League of Women Voters filed the case argued Friday. Lawyers representing the league and the state spent nearly two hours arguing its merits and demerits before Cooper.

Veteran Tallahassee education policy litigator Ron Meyer argued for the league (backed by co-counsel from the Southern Poverty Law Center) that the ballot summary attempts to misrepresent what it would do, misleading voters. Blaine Winship, special counsel in the Office of the Attorney General, argued the state’s case.

The amendment contains three provisions: establishing term limits for school board members, requiring a “civics literacy” curriculum and the main bone of contention.

The contested ballot language reads:

“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.”

The packaging — combining potentially popular items with one that involving controversial charter schools — amounts to “putting sparkly things around a pile of mud,” Meyer said. “I submit to you that’s what this whole proposal does.”

Winship defended the language as clear enough. “There’s nothing misleading about it,” he said.

He argued the amendment would free the state to create “even other kinds of public schools in the future,” which it could operate directly or by delegating that authority.

“The classification of public schools should not be ossified,” he said. “In another five years, who knows what the nomenclature will be. We could have an entirely new idea — maybe a better, cleverer idea — about how to handle public education.”

Later, Winship discussed the case with reporters.

“This is simply giving the voters the opportunity to make this kind of decision,” he said.

“The question of who is establishing these schools, and therefore who has the right to control them, this would be something that presumably would be up to the legislation that’s turned out by our elected legislators, and subject to judicial decisions. In this state, almost everything in this area tends to get litigated, and that’s another safeguard.”

Florida’s courts have struggled for years to resolve tensions over whether local boards control schools, or the Legislature does. In 2008, the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee rejected a state law establishing a Florida Schools of Excellence Commission intended to oversee charter schools, on the grounds it trod on school board’s constitutional authority.

The amendment at issue now would settle the question, Winship said.

“This is something for the voters to sort out,” he said. “Depending on whether they give the state the kind of authorization that the CRC is looking to give the state, then the question would be how is the state going to exercise its authority. That’s really for them to decide.”

Meyer also spoke with reporters following the arguments.

“The reason charters aren’t mentioned (in the ballot language) is the CRC said they didn’t feel that would poll well — this would probably not pass if this was about further giveaways to charter schools,” he said. “It’s not surprising to me that they don’t mention charters in the ballot summary that the voters are going to see. But that’s what this is about.”

State law defines charter schools as public schools, but it’s not clear that’s widely understood. Even a judge like Cooper, who has spent years sorting out spats over education, can get confused.

“I’m going to make a confession to you,” he told the parties. “I didn’t know charter schools were public schools until this year.”

With the November election looming, the litigants and courts feel under the gun, Winship said.

“We’re all under enormous pressure — our judges, our justices of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Because we want to get this job done. We want to get it done right, so that the voters of this state, when they go to cast their ballots, will have the benefit of having these proposals before them.”

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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