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

Districts might still appeal the order, which leaves the law intact.
Gov. Rick Scott appears in Orlando to sign HB 7069. The Florida Channel
Gov. Rick Scott appears in Orlando to sign HB 7069. The Florida Channel
Published April 5, 2018|Updated April 5, 2018

After a nearly 5-hour hearing, Leon County Judge John Cooper wasted little time Wednesday in throwing out several school districts' challenge of HB 7069, the controversial 2017 education legislation that created a new class of charter schools, among several other measures.

Cooper found the law constitutional.

He issued his ruling of summary judgment for the defendants — the Florida Board of Education, Department of Education, and intervening parents and charter schools — from the bench without boiling it down to writing. Lawyers for the two sides will submit suggestions for a written order within a week.

The upshot is that HB 7069 remains intact.

"The law is in effect until some court decides is is unconstitutional," said Shawn Arnold, the lawyer representing the intervening charter schools and parents who supported HB 7069. "In essence, nothing changed."

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the prime mover behind the law, praised the court decision.

"Today's ruling is a great day for all parents, all students, and all teachers. It is our hope that school districts will drop these wasteful foolish challenges and work with us to implement transformational policies," Corcoran said via email. "Education dollars belong in the classroom not in the courtroom."

The sides did not disagree on the facts in the case.

The Florida Legislature created the Schools of Hope charter school system outside the control of districts. It directed local tax revenue away from the districts without school board approval. It changed the rules of the game for improving low-performing schools, in some cases taking operations away from the districts.

"It was really just a pure question of law," Arnold said.

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

Attorneys for the districts argued that the Legislature overstepped its constitutional authority. They pointed to the section of the state constitution that give school boards the power establish, maintain and operate schools within their political boundaries.

Lawyers for the defense contended the Legislature gets the presumption that laws it establishes are constitutional, and the arguments the districts made were political.

"The issues presented in this case are controversial matters of educational policy relating generally to charter school funding," the lawyers wrote in their brief to the court. "Not everyone in the body politic agrees whether charter schools should receive more equitable funding. … However, the question of whether charter schools should receive nearly equitable funding was answered in the affirmative by the Florida Legislature through the changes made in HB 7069. That political decision is not for this court to second guess."

Related coverage: Battle over HB 7069 continues in Leon County court 

They further contended that the districts had no standing to bring the case. In addition, the defense contended districts that accepted some Schools of Hope grant funding established in the law waived their right to challenge the law.

"The judge ruled in our favor on those," said David Koperski, Pinellas County School Board attorney. "Of course, that's a little bit of a pyrrhic victory."

On the larger issues, Cooper sided with the defense for each of the six main points of the complaint.

"He didn't even break them down," Koperski said.

He said he could only glean a few reasons from Cooper's line of questions, in which the judge emphasized that statutes are presumed to be constitutional.

Attorneys for the school boards have scheduled a conference call for 4 p.m. to discuss next steps. Koperski speculated they will continue the case in the First District Court of Appeal, but added that nothing is settled.

"I think we anticipated this would not be a one-stop process," he said.

Renita Thukral, senior national legal advisor to the National Charter School Legal Action Fund, called the ruling a major victory in the effort to protect access to high quality charter schools.

"This case directly affects that mission," Thukral said. "Everyone around the country has been watching this case."

So, too, have charter schools within the state.

Jane Watt, founder of Marco Island Academy, an intervenor in the case, said she was gratified by the ruling.

"Our school desperately needs the HB 7069 funds," she said, noting it operates out of portable buildings. "This is a huge win for Florida students. It shows all children matter."

A couple of other lawsuits challenging aspects of HB 7069, including its inclusion of multiple subjects in a single bill, remain before the courts. The Florida Constitution Revision Commission has proposed a measure that would change some of the language the school boards relied upon in making their arguments.