Sue Legg, former education director of the Florida League of Women Voters and a newly elected member of the board of the Network for Public Education, writes here about a decision rendered by the Florida Supreme Court on January 4. This decision bodes ill for the children and public schools of Florida.

Sue Legg writes:

Article IX of Florida’s constitution, ratified by the state’s voters in 1998, called for the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children to have a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools…. In 2009, the Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit began its arduous journey to the Florida Supreme Court. The plaintiffs had argued that Florida’s choice system failed its constitutional mandate. In one example, the plaintiffs cited data showing “one million Florida minority students (1/2 of all students), moreover, do not read at grade level”.

The defense defined educational quality as ‘continuous progress’. Thus, in the state’s view, if test scores go up, the system is working. NAEP was the standard used to show improvement. There has been improvement in Florida’s NAEP scores over the past twenty years. The state claimed that the improvement in achievement was attributed to the quality of teachers and administrators and the pressure from school choice. The plaintiffs argued that improvement is fine, but the achievement is still low. Moreover, a high quality system gives access to all children, not just some.

At its core, the lawsuit was about adequate funding to meet children’s needs. If the plaintiffs had won the lawsuit, they would have asked for a cost study so that requirements would be aligned with resources. In the current choice system, funding to support charter and private schools drains needed resources from public schools. Florida’s per student funding is one of the lowest in the nation.

In January 2019, the Court in a contentious 4/3 split decision, rejected the claims of the plaintiff. The majority opinion of the court was that the terms ‘high quality’ and ‘efficient’ are ambiguous and do not create judiciable standards. Education policy and funding are in the domain of the legislature, not the judicial system. Chief Justice Canady said: the plaintiffs “failed to provide any manageable standard by which to avoid judicial intrusion into other branches of government”. The minority opinions stated that the majority opinion “eviscerates the 1998 opinion…only time will truly reveal the depth of the injury inflicted upon Florida’s children”.

What is the correct basis for the legal argument? is it a rational basis or must the state comply with specific requirements to provide a high quality education? A Wikipedia explanation stated that it is easier to define a rational basis by what it is not. It is not a genuine effort…to inquire whether a statute does in fact further a legitimate end of government. I found a quote attributed to Thurgood Marshall…the constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws. The case may may have hinged on the interpretation of the legal basis of the case. It reminds me of a saying I have heard often: Is it close enough for government work or do we have to get it right?

Where do Florida citizenss go next to garner support for the education of its children?