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Florida, school districts still battling over 2017 charter school law

Much of the court debate centers on whether the state has authority to create ‘Schools of Hope’ charters.

Two years after its adoption, Florida’s controversial law establishing the ‘Schools of Hope’ charter school program remains a point of contention.

On Tuesday, lawyers for 10 school districts including Pinellas County argued in court that the statute — commonly referred to as HB 7069 — is unconstitutional and should be tossed out. Lawmakers overstepped their bounds, they contended, by granting powers of creating and overseeing new schools to the state, while the Florida constitution reserves that role for local school boards.

They referred specifically to the 1968 section that authorizes school boards to "operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein. "

With HB 7069, attorney Steven Brannock argued, the state sets itself up to approve a set of charter schools outside the district control, and to direct the spending of some local tax revenue without school board consideration.

Related coverage: Broward sues over massive education bill as other Florida counties consider joining in

The state can pass a statute, and set forth rules and standards that local districts must meet, Brannock told the three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal. “What you don’t do is say, 'Forget it, we’re going to go ahead and make the decisions for you. ... That’s what is unconstitutional.”

Lawyers for the state rejected the districts’ position. They pointed to a 1998 revision to the constitution that makes it a “paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

That suggests the state has the explicit authority to do what is necessary within the public school system to create opportunities such as ‘Schools of Hope,’ argued attorney Rocco Testani.

Testani stressed that school boards continue to have control over several aspects of the charter school model, including the ability to approve contracts and terminate a ‘School of Hope’ for its failure to meet set standards.

“The idea that they’re cut out is simply not true,” he said, stressing that this law differs from one that had given the state direct authority to establish a charter schools.

The Florida Supreme Court threw out that law creating a Schools of Excellence Commission.

The appellate judges on Tuesday asked a few questions about the merits of this case, in which Leon County judge John Cooper had ruled for the state a year ago. But their primary focus centered on whether school districts had standing to bring the case in the first place.

They repeatedly asked all presenting lawyers about precedents that dealt with constitutional officers challenging laws that might affect their duties. Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas pointedly asked at one point which, if any, of the districts’ six complaints would survive if standing were not granted.

Brannock contended the case law was clear, that constitutional officers “have the right to complain about the impact on their duties of an unconstitutional statute.” Testani countered that a recent ruling from Escambia County that the officials cannot challenge the laws that affect their duties.

He went further to assert that in this case, no roles had been impeded.

“What these boards are saying is, they want to be left alone,” Testani said.

The judges did not comment or make any ruling.

Related coverage: Leon County judge rules against school districts’ challenge of HB 7069