Florida Supreme Court tosses out decade-old education funding lawsuit

Four members upheld a lower court ruling that terms such as "high quality" are too subjective to be judged, while three justices dissented.
The Florida Supreme Court hears oral arguments Nov. 8, 2018, on a lawsuit contending the state does not provide adequate funding for a high quality uniform system of public education. [WFSU/The Florida Supreme Court]
The Florida Supreme Court hears oral arguments Nov. 8, 2018, on a lawsuit contending the state does not provide adequate funding for a high quality uniform system of public education. [WFSU/The Florida Supreme Court]
Published Jan. 4, 2019|Updated Jan. 5, 2019

Florida's 10-year-old lawsuit contending the state has shortchanged some of its public education students has ended with the Supreme Court's narrow rejection of the complaint.

Three justices plus a substitute associate justice, subbing in for recused Justice Ricky Polston, agreed with the trial and appellate court rulings that the constitutional terms the plaintiffs relied upon are political aspirations, without enough specificity for court judgment.

The Citizens for Strong Schools petitioners contended that the state did not meet its "paramount duty" to fund an "an efficient, safe, secure and uniform high-quality education."

The court majority of justices Charles Canady, Al Lawson and Jorge Labarga, along with associate justice Edward LaRose found the petitioners "fail to present any manageable standard by which to avoid judicial intrusion into the powers of the other branches of government."

They suggested that the voter-approved language added to the state constitution in 1998 did not hand policy decisions such as education funding formulas to the court.

"There is no reason to believe that the judiciary is competent to make these complex and difficult policy choices. And there is every reason to believe that arrogating such policy choices to the judiciary would do great violence to the separation of powers established in our Constitution," Canady wrote in a concurring opinion.

"Contrary to the position of the Petitioners and the dissenters, the addition to the Constitution of the capaciously vague terms 'efficient' and 'high quality' cannot be understood to have wrought a revolution in the separation of powers."

Related coverage: Appeals court upholds ruling against Florida education funding challenge

Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis disagreed.

"With its decision today, the majority of this Court fails to provide
any judicial remedy for the students who are at the center of this lawsuit—African American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, and students who attend school in poorer school districts or attend persistently low performing schools," Pariente wrote in her dissent.

"The majority of this Court eviscerates article IX, section 1, of the Florida Constitution, contrary to the clear intent of the voters, and abdicates its
responsibility to interpret this critical provision and construe the terms 'uniform,' 'efficient,' and 'high quality,' enshrined in that provision."

The high court heard arguments on this case in early November. Its ruling comes just before dissenters Pariente, Quince and Lewis retire.

The court did not leave room for added motions for rehearing. If the case were to continue, the plaintiffs would have to start from scratch.

The plaintiffs had been seeking to have the case sent back to the trial court, suggesting the lower court did not properly consider its authority.

Their lawyer, Jodi Siegel of the Southern Legal Counsel, said she was "deeply disappointed" with the decision.

"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," Siegel said via email. "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 a high quality education. 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.'"

She said the ruling effectively ended this case, but left room for a more "targeted" future claim. "But that is for another day."

Ari Bargil of the Institute for Justice, who represented families that receive tax credit and McKay scholarships, praised the outcome. He said it protects the programs that have allowed thousands of students to attend private schools through the scholarships.

"The Court held that both programs were safe from constitutional attack because the challengers had not adequately preserved the arguments throughout the litigation," Bargil said in a released statement. "After years of uncertainty, parents of scholarship students in Florida can breathe a sigh of relief."

Senate President Bill Galvano also expressed satisfaction with the ruling, on both philosophical and governmental grounds.

"I am certain parents across our state are relieved to know that for a third time now the attempts to deprive tens of thousands of children with unique abilities and children from low-income families of the educational opportunities their parents selected have been soundly defeated in a court of law," Galvano said in a release. "Separation of powers is a hallmark of our form of government, and I am pleased to see the Supreme Court affirm that the responsibility to write the state budget lies with the Florida Legislature."

Read the full ruling, including dissents, here.

Note: This post has been updated to include comments from some of the participating lawyers, and Senate President Bill Galvano.