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Justices reject challenge to state education system

A fiercely divided Florida Supreme Court on Friday rejected a nearly decade-long lawsuit that challenged whether the state has properly carried out a 1998 constitutional amendment that called for ensuring a “high quality” system of public schools.

The decision upheld lower-court rulings and focused heavily on the role of the judiciary in addressing sweeping issues such as the quality of public schools. A main opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady, Justice Alan Lawson and Associate Justice Edward LaRose said plaintiffs in the case failed “to present any manageable standard by which to avoid judicial intrusion into the powers of the other branches of government.”

Canady, in a concurring opinion, was more pointed, saying the “manifest goal” of the plaintiffs and three dissenting justices “is to put educational funding and educational policy firmly under the control of the judiciary.”

“The judiciary is very good at making certain types of decisions — that is, judicial decisions,” wrote Canady, who was joined by Lawson and LaRose in the concurring opinion. “But it lacks the institutional competence — or the constitutional authority — to make the monumental funding and policy decisions that the petitioners (the plaintiffs) and the dissenters seek to shift to the judicial branch. And there is not a hint of any manageable judicial standards to apply in making those decisions. Instead, if the petitioners and the dissenters had their way, judges would simply apply their own policy preferences.”

Justice Jorge Labarga sided with Canady, Lawson and LaRose but did not sign on to the main opinion or the concurring opinion. LaRose is a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal but was added to the case after Justice Ricky Polston recused himself.

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Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince joined in two dissenting opinions, with Pariente writing that the court majority “eviscerates” the 1998 constitutional amendment, “contrary to the clear intent of the voters, and abdicates its responsibility to interpret this critical provision.”

“My friends and colleagues in the majority make a very grave and harmful mistake today,” Lewis wrote in another dissent. “Although I understand their good-faith and well-intentioned approach, only time will truly reveal the depth of the injury inflicted upon Florida’s children. The words describing the right to a high quality education and the constitutional concept of protecting that right ring hollow without a remedy to protect the right.”

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.

The group 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 upheld that ruling and said arguments about the state failing to adequately provide for public schools “raise political questions not subject to judicial review.” That prompted the plaintiffs to appeal to the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments in November, plaintiffs’ 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 at the time. “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, told justices that 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 opinions Friday shared by Canady, Lawson and LaRose focused on issues such as the separation of powers between courts and other branches of government and the difficulty for judges in deciding such a “blanket” challenge to the education system.

“There is no reason to believe that the judiciary is competent to make these complex and difficult policy choices,” Canady wrote in the concurring opinion. “And there is every reason to believe that arrogating such policy choices to the judiciary would do great violence to the separation of powers established in our Constitution.”

But in her dissent, which was joined by Lewis and Quince, Pariente wrote that, with Friday’s decision, “the majority of this (Supreme) 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.”

“Certainly, I recognize that the task of making adequate provision for a high quality education is primarily for the Legislature. We are not legislators. We are justices charged with enforcing the rights set forth in Florida’s Constitution,” Pariente wrote. “That is why with (the part of the Constitution that includes the 1998 amendment), the citizens of this state intended for compliance — or noncompliance — with that provision to be adjudicated by the judiciary when properly brought to the court. Indeed, the task of construing the Constitution and determining whether the state is fulfilling its express obligations required by the Constitution — and the citizens of this state who approved the relevant constitutional language — is solely the judiciary’s task.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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