GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Just as Florida students head back to class, the Florida Supreme Court has scheduled oral argument for Nov. 8 in a case involving the question of whether Florida is meeting its obligation under an amendment passed by Florida voters 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.”
Two lower courts have ruled in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education that the question is not one for the courts to decide, and that it is instead up to the Florida Legislature.
But the coalition of education advocates and parents that filed the original suit in 2009 has amassed more than 5,000 exhibits introduced during a four-week trial in 2016 pointing to a degradation of Florida’s education system that has been ushered in by the very powers to which the courts would relinquish their authority in the matter – the other two branches of government.
“At the heart of this case is really whether the Florida Constitution has any meaning at all in the eyes of our courts,” said Jodi Siegel, executive director of Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville-based, statewide nonprofit law firm representing the parents and advocacy groups that filed the original case and have appealed it to the state’s highest court.
“The lower courts have basically said that only two of the three branches of our government have any responsibility for enforcing an amendment that clearly expresses the will of the people when it comes to one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government – educating the state’s children,” Siegel said. “We believe the Florida Supreme Court will recognize that the courts not only have that authority, but in fact that it is their sworn duty to uphold the Florida Constitution – and not just select parts of it, but all of it.”
The parents and advocacy groups are requesting that the Court remand the case back to the trial court with instructions on how to interpret and apply the education clause. They contend that, when viewed under the proper legal standards, the evidence presented at trial shows clear disparities in the opportunity provided to children to receive a high quality education. For example, the evidence presented showed that more than 40 percent of Florida students are not passing statewide assessments in reading and math.
Several members of Florida’s 1998 Constitution Revision Commission that devised the language of the amendment have jointly filed an amicus brief contending the voter-approved amendment is enforceable by the courts. A number of other groups have weighed in, filing amicus briefs on both sides of this case, demonstrating the public significance of the issues to be decided by the Court.
The oral argument at the Florida Supreme Court will be held just two days after Florida voters go to the polls to decide on a host of amendments that have been put forward by the 2017-18 Constitution Revision Commission, which is the first time since 1998 they’ve done so, since the body only convenes once every 20 years.
“We certainly hope the Florida Supreme Court will send Florida voters a clear message that when they go to the polls and make a decision about what amendments should be in the Florida Constitution, Florida’s judiciary has their backs,” Siegel said.
About Southern Legal Counsel
Southern Legal Counsel is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that works proactively to ensure fairness, social justice and government accountability for Floridians through focused, high-impact initiatives, policy advocacy and civil litigation.