January 31, 2019
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In a close 4-3 decision in which the deciding judge joined in the result but not the opinion of his colleagues, the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month rejected a ten- yearlong attempt by public school students, parents and citizen organizations to have the state’s education finance system declared unconstitutional. Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc v. Florida State Board of Education.

The Florida constitution provides that education is “a paramount duty” of the state and requires that “[a]dequate provision” shall be made by law for a “high quality” education system. The plurality ruled that these terms do not provide “any manageable” standard for the court to use in assessing the adequacy of the amount of funding that the schools receive. The Court rejected plaintiffs’ position that the state’s educational standards provide such a standard, because

Adopting State standards as constitutional minima would have the perverse effect of encouraging the weakening of curriculum standards in order to achieve the higher passage rates and to satisfy court-imposed requirements.

The plurality decision also refused to consider decisions from other states that had found that less robust language in their constitutions provides judicially manageable standards. The Court did, however, note that this case was a broad, blanket challenge to the entire state school funding system, and it left open the possibility that a “challenge to a specific program or a specific funding issue” could be subject to judicial review.

Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for and two other dissenting justices, set forth a definition of “high quality” that she asserted would provide judicially manageable standards for the purposes of this case. She wrote that “high quality” means:

…an education system that allows all students an equal opportunity to learn the core content knowledge set by the State and become knowledgeable and engaged adults.

In response to the plurality’s view that the state’s educational standards could not provide a manageable constitutional standard, Justice Pariente stated that:

If the State were to intentionally adopt low standards to achieve higher pass rates, those standards could be challenged as a violation of the State’s constitutional obligation to provide a “high quality” education. Simply because Petitioners in this case do not challenge the standards set by the State does not render their claim non-justiciable.

In a separate dissent, Justice R. Fred Lewis regretted the “depth of injury” that the majority was inflicting upon Florida’s school children. He bluntly stated that courts sometimes “throw up justiciability barricades only to avoid the difficult or complex cases, taking the easy way out by using excuses to defer the decision of a case to a legislative body.” He opined that because of the majority decision in this case, the “words describing the right to a high quality education and the constitutional concept of protecting that right ring hollow without a remedy to protect that right.”

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