Florida's Decision To Not Decide: Leaving the Neediest Students Without a Voice

Omar Perez

Every twenty years, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission (“Revision Commission”) meets to examine the Florida Constitution and explore the possibility of revisions.[i]  In the summer of 1997, the Revision Commission “held thirteen public hearings throughout Florida” calling for any recommendations that citizens of Florida wanted to see made to the Florida Constitution.[ii]  Many of the public’s proposals focused on the issue of education.[iii] As a result of the Revision Commission’s negative response towards these proposals, they were changed and effectively diluted.[iv]

In, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,[v] the Supreme Court of the United States held that education is not a constitutionally protected fundamental right and should be addressed by each state.[vi]  All of the fifty states’ constitutions contain an education provision, with each provision containing varying levels of requirements, such as financing, as to what must be provided to each student.[vii]  Lawsuits claiming that a state is providing an unconstitutional level of funding to schools are assessed according to these provisions.[viii]

Citizens for Strong Schools, a small non-profit organization, was formed in 2008 with the hope of improving education in Alachua County, Florida.[ix]  The organization filed the latest lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the level of education provided by the state of Florida in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education[x] in 2009.[xi]

On May 24, 2016, Judge Reynolds issued a twenty-nine page opinion.[xii]  Judge Reynolds explained that Florida’s education system is structurally complicated.[xiii]  This is because each county has its own school board, which sets its own policies and standards.[xiv]  Thus, even among schools with substantially similar levels of funding, it is easy to see how there are variations in how districts allocate resources and see different results.[xv]

Judge Reynolds held that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that Florida had breached any duty under Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution.[xvi]  Judge Reynolds found for the defendants for several reasons.[xvii]  He wrote that education funding had received the largest percentage of the state budget,[xviii] “there is not a constitutional level lack of resources,”[xix] highly qualified teachers are in schools across every district,[xx] “Florida students have substantially improved their performance on the . . . NAEP,”[xxi] and that Florida cannot possibly guarantee that every student will be successful.[xxii]

Interestingly, Judge Reynolds noted all of these factors to rule in favor of the defendants, but goes on to say that there are no judicially manageable standards under the Constitution to determine the adequacy claim by the plaintiffs.[xxiii]  Judge Reynolds wrote that the 1998 amendment to Article IX, section 1(a) provides no standards that clarify the meaning of adequate.[xxiv]

Citizens for Strong Schools has appealed the decision by Judge Reynolds.[xxv]

            If the Supreme Court of Florida decides that it cannot adjudicate the issue of adequacy, educational reformers need to be successful during the 2017 to 2018 Revision Commission.[xxvi]  It would be difficult for the Court to ignore claims concerning the infringement of a constitutional right.[xxvii]

[i].              Fla. Const. of 1968, art. XI, § 2(a), (c); Gordon, supra note 8, at 288.
[ii].             Mills & McLendon, supra note 7, at 359; see also Fla. Const. of 1968 art. XI, § 2(a) (setting up the creation of the Revision Commission).
[iii].            See Mills & McLendon, supra note 7, at 359–60.  “Public proposals submitted to the [Revision] Commission included requests both for more education funding and to limit education funding, matters of education vouchers and school choice, a return to the 1868 Constitution’s paramount duty language, and a plea for free community college . . . .”  Mills & McLendon, supra note 39, at 32.  The Revision Commission also “considered other public proposals, including a proposal to make education a fundamental right . . . .”  Mills & McLendon, supra note 7, at 360.
[iv].            Id. at 297–98.
[v].             411 U.S. 1 (1973).
[vi].            Carlee Poston Escue et al., Some Perspectives on Recent School Finance Litigation, 268 Educ. L. Rep. 601, 601–02 (2011); see also Areto A. Imoukhuede, The Fifth Freedom:  The Constitutional Duty to Provide Public Education, 22 U. Fla. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 45, 47 (2011) (discussing the fact that although education was considered by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the freedom from ignorance, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that education is not a fundamental right); Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., The Legacy and Implications of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 17 Rich. J.L. & Pub. Int. 515, 522 (2014) (discussing the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision to show deference to the State Legislature, which had traditionally operated education because these localities were in the best position to make such decisions); Richard J. Stark, Education Reform:  Judicial Interpretation of State Constitutions’ Education Finance Provisions — Adequacy vs. EqualityAnn. Surv. Am. L. 609, 623 (1991).
[vii].           Karen Swenson, School Finance Reform Litigation:  Why Are Some State Supreme Courts Activist and Others Restrained?, 63 Alb. L. Rev. 1147, 1156–57 (2000); see also Escue et al., supra note 2, at 602–03.
[viii].          Swenson, supra note 3, at 1156.
[ix].            Eric Barton, Florida Education on Trial:  Lawsuit Makes Case That System is Unfair to PoorMiami Herald (Mar. 12, 2016, 9:51 PM), http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article65739822.html.
[x].              No. 09-CA-4534, slip op. (Fla. 2d Cir. Ct. May 24, 2016).
[xi].            Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., slip op. at 1–2.
[xii].           Brandon Larrabee, Judge Rejects Broad Challenge to Florida’s Education SystemTallahassee Democrat (May 25, 2016, 12:14 AM), http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/local/state/2016/05/25/judge-rejects-broad-challenge-floridas-education-system/84892452/.
[xiii].          Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc. v. Fla. State Bd. of Educ., No. 09-CA-4534, slip op. at 4 (Fla. 2d Cir. Ct. May 24, 2016).
[xiv].          Id.
[xv].           Id.
[xvi].          Id. at 15; see also Fla. Const. of 1968, art. IX, § 1(a).
[xvii].           Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., slip op. at 15.
[xviii].        Id. at 7.
[xix].          Id.
[xx].           Id. at 9.
[xxi].          Id. at 11.
[xxii].         Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., slip op. at 10 (quoting Fla. Stat. § 1000.03(5)(f) (2015)).  “The goals of Florida’s K-20 education system are not guarantees that each individual student will succeed or that each individual school will perform at the level indicated in the goals.”  Fla. Stat. § 1000.03(5)(f) (2015).
[xxiii].        Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., slip op. at 18–19.
[xxiv].        Id. at 18; see also Fla. Const. of 1968, art. IX, § 1(a); Mills & McLendon, supra note 39, at 30.
[xxv].         Jessica Bakeman, Education Activists Want Quick Supreme Court Review of Funding SuitPolitico (July 12, 2016, 2:11 PM), http://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2016/07/education-activists-hope-to-appeal-adequacy-case-directly-to-supreme-court-103719.
[xxvi].          See Gordon, supra note 8, at 288; supra Part VI.
[xxvii].          See Gordon, supra note 8, at 280, 296, 298; supra Part VI.

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