Thursday, November 15, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Florida Supreme Court wisely kills misleading charter school amendment

Voters should know what they’re voting on, which is why the Florida Supreme Court was entirely correct to strike the deviously worded Amendment 8 from the Nov. 6 ballot. The amendment would have significantly expanded charter schools in Florida by letting the state rather than local school boards approve and control them, but the authors of the amendment lacked the candor to even mention "charter school" in the text.

The now-stricken amendment was originally placed on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission, which squandered a chance that comes only once every 20 years to place clear, meaningful changes to the Florida Constitution directly on the ballot. But Amendment 8, like so many other amendments bundled by the CRC, was a mishmash of misdirection, combining disparate elements that should have been handled separately as single issues, which is what the Constitution already requires of amendments arising from citizens’ initiatives.

In this case, the sour charter school provision was dusted with some populist sugar in the guise of two other parts that would have required public schools to teach civic literacy and to set term limits for school board members. But make no mistake. The true — but unnamed — purpose of this amendment was to eliminate local school boards’ jurisdiction over charter schools, which are public schools sponsored by nonprofits and typically run by for-profit corporations. School boards are often more skeptical of charter schools than the Legislature and its charter and voucher-friendly members.

In August, Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that Amendment 8 should come off the ballot, because, in failing to use the phrase "charter schools," which he referred to as "the term voters would understand," the language "fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal." In a 4-3 ruling last week, the Florida Supreme Court upheld that decision and kicked the question off the November ballot for good.

The word "charter" did not appear in the amendment text, title or summary. In fact, the cagey ballot summary simply said that the state would have permission to "operate, control and supervise public schools not established by the school board." Got it?

Erika Donalds, a prominent school choice advocate and a Collier County School Board member, was the CRC commissioner who pushed for Amendment 8. She now decries "activist judges" for striking it from the ballot. But all these justices did was eliminate a proposed amendment that was too clever by half in its obfuscation. In a tweet, Donalds railed against "defenders of the education monopoly," a misleading assertion given the number of charter schools and students attending private schools on vouchers. The Florida Constitution is crystal clear in the state’s obligation to its students, who are entitled to "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." In contrast, Amendment 8 was written in code.

Those who so firmly believe in charter schools should be more than happy to let them appear on the ballot by name, not by subterfuge. That would be the forthright way to make the case. After all, many charter schools serve their students well, so why the reluctance to name names and let voters decide on the merits? Instead, voters were nearly left with no context to suss out the schools that shall not be named until the Florida Supreme Court made the correct decision on behalf of clarity and candor.

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