School districts lose another round in court over law that bolsters charter schools

Districts contended that the Legislature overstepped its constitutional authority with the 2017 law.
The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
Published Aug. 29, 2019|Updated Aug. 29, 2019

The dozen Florida school districts that sued the Legislature over a controversial 2017 law establishing and funding a new charter school system have suffered another setback in court.

While acknowledging the districts had a limited right to challenge the law, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal found the districts’ legal arguments lacking and upheld a Leon County judge’s ruling against them.

Their decision, released Thursday, paved the way for further blurring of the funding streams for charter and district schools — something “choice” advocates long have supported but the critics have panned as part of the “privatization” of public schooling.

Judge Joseph Lewis Jr. wrote for the panel: “We conclude that the school boards have standing to challenge only those provisions of (the law) that address capital millage and federal Title I funds. However, because we find the school boards’ challenge to those provisions unavailing on the merits, we affirm the Final Judgment.”

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

On the issue of standing, the judges made clear that elected officials’ disagreement with a new law adopted by the Legislature is not enough to allow it to challenge the law in court. It cited past rulings to support its stance. The law is known by the name of the bill approved by the Legislature, HB 7069.

“The school boards’ constitutional challenge to HB 7069’s provisions represents their disagreement with new statutory duties enacted by the Legislature. As the foregoing authority makes clear, however, the school boards must presume that the provisions at issue are constitutional,” the court stated.

The court did allow for the districts to make challenges over the taxing and finance aspects of the legislation. Districts had argued that the Constitution gave them sole authority over the use of tax dollars raised for the taxing body, and the Legislature could not mandate specific uses.

The law directed some property tax collections toward certain charter schools.

The court found flaws with the argument. In fact, it stated that because district schools compete directly with charters, which also are public, the Legislature properly enacted language to protect and support all public school students.

“The state’s constitutional duty to make adequate provision for Florida’s public schools must be interpreted to mean that the state has a duty to ensure that charter schools are not neglected by the school boards,” the court wrote.

The court further found against the districts’ claim to sole control over the spending of federal Title I funds for low-income students. The districts have no special claim to that money, the court stated.

In fact, it continued, “the school boards do not have any constitutional right to federal Title I funds.”

“The panel wrote: "Ensuring that students in charter schools receive the federal funds that they are entitled to without relying upon the school boards’ discretion on how to allocate those funds does not violate Florida’s Constitution.”

In the final section, the court took on the issue of whether lawmakers had created an inappropriate property tax for a state priority of charter schools. The court furthered its stance that charter schools are firmly in the galaxy of public education, and that’s more than a state priority.

“While charter schools may indeed be considered a legislative or state priority in Florida, their primary purpose is the education of children, which is unquestionably a local priority,” the court wrote. “Given such, the use of local taxes to fund charter schools does not, as the school boards assert, convert or transform those local taxes into something else.”

The districts still may appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Read the two related rulings here and here.