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Suit over education funding heads to the state Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — A dispute over whether public education meets constitutional standards in Florida was bumped up to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday by a sharply divided group of appellate judges.

In a 8-7 ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal did not decide questions about whether lawmakers spend enough money on students and teachers or if state statutes promote a quality education.

The court instead sent the case to the Supreme Court, a setback for House Speaker Dean Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and other defendants who argued that education policy is a "political" issue specifically for the Legislature to decide.

"The defendants are here seeking to derail proceedings in the trial court before they can conclude here," Chief Judge Robert T. Benton II wrote for the majority.

Benton acknowledged that plaintiffs, including Pasco and Duval county students and teachers, could ultimately lose their case. But he wrote that it was an issue "of great public importance."

Judge L. Clayton Roberts wrote in a sharply worded dissent that the complaint from the plaintiffs was a "prayer for relief."

"Whether the Legislature has created a system that meets the requirements expected by our citizens will have to be judged by the citizens themselves," Roberts wrote.

In 1996, the Supreme Court dismissed a similar complaint, ruling lawmakers had "enormous discretion" to interpret a constitutional requirement for an adequate and uniform system of public schools.

But the Constitution was expanded two years later, when voters added that education must also be "efficient, safe, secure and high quality."

Florida ranked 41st among the 50 states in total funding per student, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and last in money spent on schools per $1,000 of personal income. The state's graduation rate and average SAT score both rank among the worst in the country.

Meanwhile, Florida's education system was ranked No. 5 in the country this year by Education Week, up from No. 8 last year and No. 11 the year before.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@tampabay.com.

Suit over education funding heads to the state Supreme Court 11/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 9:43pm]
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