Lawsuit challenges education amendment on Florida ballot

The proposal on the November ballot would allow charter school organizers to bypass local school boards.
Classical Preparatory charter school in Pasco County opened in 2014, and continues to grow. [Times | 2014]
Classical Preparatory charter school in Pasco County opened in 2014, and continues to grow. [Times | 2014]
Published July 12, 2018|Updated July 12, 2018

A constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow charter school organizers to bypass local school boards to get approval is "intentionally misleading" because it doesn't directly explain to voters that the amendment is designed to circumvent local control and intentionally leaves out the word "charter," a lawsuit filed Thursday in Leon County Circuit court claims.

The League of Women Voters, and two individual voters, are asking the court to remove the amendment, known as Revision 8, from the November ballot after it was placed there by the Constitution Revision Commission.

"The ballot title and summary fail to inform voters that a chief purpose of the revision to Article IX, Section 4(b) is to eliminate the long-standing, exclusive authority of local elected school boards to operate, control, and supervise all public schools, including charter schools, in their respective school districts," the complaint states.

The charter school proposal was approved by the 37-member Constitutional Revision Commission after it was bundled together with two less controversial ideas into a single amendment, now known as Amendment 8. Grouped with the charter school plan was a provision that will limit school board members to eight-year terms, and a proposal to direct the Legislature file legislation to "promote civic literacy in schools."

Voters have to approve all of them with a single vote for any of them to take effect.

Here are the 13 constitutional amendments on Florida's 2018 ballot and what they do

Florida law requires all constitutional amendments to provide an accurate summary of the "chief purpose" of the proposal, and the suit says the amendment should be removed from the ballot because it violates that law.

The suit claims the ballot title and summary for the amendment "were deliberately crafted and sequenced so as to fail to inform voters that the revision actually consists of three distinct, unrelated proposals, and to conceal from voters the chief purpose of the portion of Revision 8 pertaining to the authority of local elected school boards."

The proposal was sponsored by a member of the CRC, Erika Donalds, a charter school activist who serves on the Collier County School Board. She argued that the proposal will encourage innovation in Florida schools and was needed to update an "antiquated" constitution. Donalds is a founder of Mason Classical Academy, a Hillsdale College public charter school in Collier County, and is helping to expand the program by starting schools in other parts of the state.

The complaint quotes the ballot summary, which states that the amendment "permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board."

"However, the text of Revision 8 does no such thing,'' the complaint alleges. "The text of Revision 8 provides only that district school boards will not have the authority to operate, control, and supervise public schools they do not establish. The revision text is silent on who or what will have such authority."

Donalds told the Times/Herald on Thursday she is confident the language in the amendment is clear and hopes the court rejects the challenge.

"The challenged proposal adds just six words to Florida's Constitution,'' she said. "The ballot explanation is 45 words, one of the longest of all CRC proposals. This language was crafted and reviewed by the state's top constitutional attorneys and was overwhelmingly approved by the Style and Drafting Committee and the full CRC. Florida voters should have the opportunity to vote on Amendment 8 in November."

During CRC debate, Donalds said the amendment was needed because she considers the current constitution "antiquated" because it protects what she called "the education monopoly." She said that 35 other states have taken similar actions.

"It's not the end of public education there either,'' she said, "because when parents have the ability to choose and have high-quality options, that makes everyone even better."

But while the amendment would rewrite the way the state governs charter schools, the suit argues, it does not "fairly inform" voters of its real intent.

Under current law, school boards approve and monitor all public schools within their counties, including privately-run charter schools that operate as public schools. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, another entity — such as the Legislature or the state Department of Education — could form a state-created entity to also control and approve charter schools, allowing charter schools to leapfrog over potential local opposition.

The suit argues that if the amendment passes, "it will be an open question as to who or what may be assigned the authority to authorize, operate, control, and supervise certain newly-created charter schools and potentially other unspecified new public schools."

The complaint cites Donalds' statements during the CRC debate, which said that the power to authorize public schools could be given to a non-profit entity, a state university, a state board of education, a local school district, or a charter board.

"By only telling voters that 'the state' is permitted to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the elected district school boards, the ballot summary affirmatively misleads voters regarding the purpose and effect of the revision,'' the suit argues.

It also cites the comments of CRC member Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer and school choice activist who served on the state Board of Education under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Martinez argued that that while he supports charter schools, he disagrees "that the solution is to create a statewide agency."

"It's a big deal. It's a game changer,'' he said during the April debate. "It will allow the Legislature to create a new government bureaucracy — not located at the local level — created somewhere on Mount Tallahassee."

He also warned that voters will be confused by the way the proposal is written and tried but failed to change the title to describe the amendment as relating to "alternative state supervision of certain public schools" instead of "public schools."

"All I'm suggesting is let's give the voters a better title, a better tag, so that when they get to that question they can understand what is it we are being asked to vote on,'' he said. His amendment was rejected by a 16-21 vote.

The League of Women Voters, which took a watchdog role with the CRC's process, repeatedly expressed its complaints about the bundling of amendments.

It said in the statement Thursday the league was grateful that the Florida Constitution provides for a court to review the proposals.

"While all of the bundled proposals have the potential to be confusing, the Amendment 8 language is blatantly, and unconstitutionally, misleading," said Patricia M. Brigham. Florida league president. "Voters will not recognize that the real purpose of the amendment is to allow unaccountable political appointees to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county."