in Florida, Florida Litigation, NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK

Finding that the plaintiffs did not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that Florida’s education finance system is not “rationally related” to a system that allows students to obtain a high-quality education, Judge George S. Reynolds of the State Circuit Court for Leon County, held last week that the system does not violate Art.IX of the state constitution. Citizens for Strong Schools v. State of Florida.

Art. IX of the Florida Constitution contains language that, on its face, imposes the strongest education adequacy requirements of any state in the nation. It provides, in part, that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high-quality education.” This language was added to the constitution by an overwhelming majority vote in a state referendum after the State Supreme Court had held in a 1996 case, Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding v. Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400, that the previous constitutional language did not provide “judicially manageable standards” for determining education adequacy. The previous language had called for “adequate provision” of “a uniform system of free public schools.”

Judge Reynolds held that most of the terms in the new constitutional language like “efficient” and “high quality” also did not provide judicially manageable standards. In doing so, he ruled that these terms were “non-justiciable” “political questions” that should be determined by the legislative and executive branches and not by the courts. This stance rejected the prior conclusion of another Circuit Court judge who had ruled earlier in in the case that these issues are justiciable. Judge Reynolds did hold that the terms “safe” and “secure” provided judicially manageable standards, but he also concluded that the proof offered by the plaintiffs failed to establish that Florida’s school facilities were not structurally safe or that there was inadequate funding for building maintenance.

In concluding that the  state’s current state system for funding public education does allow for a high-quality education, the court issued an extensive 176 page set of findings of fact that, among other things, found that the scores of the state’s students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ( NAEP) had increased substantially over the years, that achievement gaps have narrowed, that minority and low-income students perform well compared to their peers in other states and that the state’s accountability and assessment system is rated among the best in the nation.

Plaintiffs claim that Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores are inflated by its system of retaining low scoring 3rd graders, that there are numerous flaws in the state’s assessment and accountability system and that over-all Judge Reynolds’ ruling ignores the overwhelming weight of the evidence that “more than a million children fail to pass required statewide assessments, thousands attend persistently low-performing schools, and the quality of their education is dependent on their race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status.” The plaintiffs have stated that they will appeal the order.

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