School choice advocates win decade-old suit over funding

School choice advocates win decade-old suit over funding

(Fla.) School choice advocates are applauding a Florida Supreme Court decision to reject a petition arguing that the state was not fulfilling its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate public school education.

At the heart of the lawsuit, filed almost 10 years ago by a coalition of advocacy groups, was the state’s expansion of charters and tax credit scholarships, which school and parent groups said was taking money away from public schools.

Meanwhile, Foundation for Florida’s Future–a school choice advocacy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush–said the 4-3 decision made Friday to reject the lawsuit was a victory in ensuring more options in education for students and their families.

“Florida is on track to providing a high-quality, student-centered education to every student across the state,” Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement. “We have a moral imperative to continue building upon this progress so that every Florida student can achieve their full potential through a quality education.”

The foundation strongly promotes school choice options, including tax credit scholarships, which provide a tax credit on corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for donations to scholarship-funding organizations that provide scholarships for low-income youth and offer funds for transportation to public schools outside a child's district.

Battles between representatives of the state’s traditional public schools and charters are common in Florida, where many state leaders tend to side with school choice advocates. In 2017, for instance, an aggressive but unsuccessful lobbying campaign was aimed at getting Gov. Rick Scott to veto budget bill that, among other things, set aside $140 million to encourage charter operators to open facilities adjacent to the state’s lowest performing schools in an effort to promote competition.

The latest case hinged on a 1998 constitutional amendment approved by 70 percent of Florida voters that sought to strengthen guarantees for K-12 education by declaring that “adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

In bringing the case, the advocacy coalition, known as Citizens for Strong Schools, asked the courts to declare that the school system falls short of that constitutional requirement. The suit pointed to a series of changes expanding school options made by Legislators, including the expansion of vouchers for religious private schools, as an example of how they argued the state was funneling money away from traditional public schools.

In a 4-3 decision announced last week, however, the court said the lawsuit wasn't a matter for courts to settle, and that it is the Legislature's responsibility to set education funding. While the 1998 amendment states that Florida has a duty to provide an “efficient, safe, secure and high quality” education for students, the court said the amendment didn't define how those terms should be interpreted.

And, according to the majority opinion, forcing lawmakers to increase funding for schools would violate the separation of powers.

“Petitioners invite this Court to not only intrude into the Legislature's appropriations power ... but to inject itself into education policy making and oversight,” the opinion reads. “We decline the invitation for the courts to overstep their bounds.”

Yet multiple rulings in similar cases have been made in recent years in in favor of plaintiffs arguing that state funding is inadequate to ensure all students are receiving a strong education, including in states such as New Mexico, Kansas and Washington.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in opposition of the majority that it is in fact that the court's responsibility to make sure the state is living up to its constitutional obligation.

“The significance of education both to the success of our children and to a functioning democracy cannot be overstated,” Pariente wrote. “The drafters of Florida's Constitution recognized this fact. That guarantee means nothing, however, without a judicial branch willing to perform its constitutional duty.”

Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mother who helped found Fund Education Now, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, told the Orlando Sentinel that the Supreme Court’s opinion shows the state constitution “has no power” and leaves lawmakers to decide if they want to follow it.

She told reporters she expects state leadership will move to create education savings accounts, funneling more state dollars to private schools. Indeed, Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis pledged during his campaign to further expand private school choice programs.

“It’s going to be the status quo that has been churning up our education system for the past 21 years,” Oropeza said.

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