GAINESVILLE, Fla. – After a nine-year legal fight waged by Southern Legal Counsel on behalf of a coalition of education advocates and parents, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that a voter-approved amendment to the Florida Constitution assigning the state specific responsibilities relative to its education system is not enforceable by the courts.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Florida Supreme Court held that the courts don’t have a role in interpreting the constitution and upholding the will of the voters,” said Jodi Siegel, executive director of Southern Legal Counsel and the lead attorney on the case. “We certainly agree with Justices Pariente and Lewis that the role of the judiciary is to interpret the constitution and that the terms in Article IX are definable. Unfortunately, they were not in the majority. Justice Pariente details how the evidence we submitted at trial supports our claim that not all children have the opportunity to achieve. As Justice Lewis states: ‘The protections our citizens have demanded are merely hollow phrases of nothingness if there is no remedy or actual access to the protections listed.’”
Florida voters passed an amendment in 1998 that assigns to the state the “paramount duty” to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”
After filing their original suit in 2009, the plaintiffs in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education collected more than 5,000 exhibits to demonstrate that Florida was not fulfilling that duty. Among the evidence presented was data showing that more than 40 percent of Florida students are not passing statewide assessments in reading and math, as well as wide disparities indicative of a lack of uniformity among schools, school districts and populations.
After both the trial court and appeals court ruled in favor of the state, the plaintiffs were asking the Florida Supreme Court to remand the case back to the trial court with instructions on how to interpret and apply the education clause. The 4-3 decision leaves all responsibility for enforcing the education amendment to the Florida Legislature and the Department of Education.
“We’ve reached the end of the road unless and until the voters approve new language with which no one can argue,” Siegel said. “While we may not have won this case, we have amassed a strong body of evidence and built a coalition that can serve as a springboard for future reform efforts.”
The Court did not address the other issues raised by Petitioners.