Court denies groups' education funding lawsuit to bypass appellate court

By Andrew Burger | Aug 10, 2016

TALLAHASSEE – The 1st District Court of Appeal on July 26 denied a suggestion for certification that would have enabled a lawsuit in which Citizens for Strong Schools, Fund Education Now and several individual plaintiffs were seeking to bypass the appellate court and proceed directly to the Florida Supreme Court.

Comprised primarily of public advocacy groups, public school students, their parents and educators, the plaintiffs contend that the state government has failed in its constitutional and statutory obligations to adequately fund K-12 public schools.

Attorneys for Southern Legal Counsel, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, are preparing an initial brief in advance of a 1st District Court hearing. The state will file a reply and then the presiding judge will hear oral arguments for both sides in advance of adjudication continuing, Kirsten Clanton, co-counsel for plaintiffs, told the Florida Record.

"There are more than a million students who are not reading on grade level and the state's own data shows glaring achievement gaps among rich and poor schools, students, and districts," Clanton said. "This case seeks to hold the state accountable for its failure to provide a high-quality system of public education to all students."

A Circuit Court of the 2nd Judicial Circuit for Leon County in early July dismissed the lawsuit, the origin of which dates back to 2009. In his decision, Judge George Reynolds stated that Florida public school funding levels, rules of accountability and school choice programs do not violate the state constitution, in which providing a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality" education for all is considered a "paramount" obligation of the state.

More than 2.69 million students were enrolled in 4,269 public schools in 76 districts across the state at latest count in 2013, with the student-to-teacher ratio coming in at about 15:1, according to the state.

On average, Florida spent $8,433 per pupil that year, 42nd among the 50 U.S. states. More than 75 percent of students graduated in 2013, a higher percentage than that for neighboring states. The dropout rate was 2.1 percent in both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, below the national average of 3.3 percent.

Aggregate totals and statistics obscure details and don't tell the complete story, however. In a proposed settlement Southern Legal Counsel wrote for the 2nd Judicial Circuit for Leon County, plaintiffs state that "the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the state has failed to allow all children to have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments."

“This eight-year ramble through the Florida court system is harming the students who are not achieving and are not being offered the high quality education they need to succeed,” plaintiffs' lead counsel of the Southern Legal Center Jodi Siegel wrote in its proposed settlement in Leon County court.

In the course of litigation plaintiffs also asserted that public school funding was being diminished by three Florida School Choice private schooling programs: charter schools, the Tax Credit Scholarship (TCS) and McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. Judge Lori S. Rowe of the 1st District Court of Appeal dismissed the complaint last year, stating plaintiffs failed to provide clear evidence that the three programs resulted in an alleged $300 million loss to the state's education budget.

TCS provides tax credits to parents of students who choose to send their children to private schools and hence has no effect on the amount of money the state allocates for the public school system, explained Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, a counsel for the defendants, explained.

"To the extent it touches on any of our programs, the existence of School Choice in Florida does not operate to defund or limit the amount of funding to public schools. There are feasible ways to increase state funding for public schools without eliminating school choice," he said.

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