The Florida Constitution could not be clearer: The state has a "paramount duty" to provide "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." Yet in a 4-3 opinion this month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against plaintiffs who convincingly argued the state has starved schools of money and failed to meet that unambiguous standard. With the new governor, the new education commissioner and the Florida Legislature obsessed with charter schools and tuition vouchers for private schools, the court has killed the last, best hope for improving the public schools most children attend.
The end of this decade-long legal fight, Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. vs. Florida State Board of Education, should cause anyone who cares about public education to shudder. The court's conservative justices concluded it is not the court's job to enforce the requirements in the Constitution that were approved by voters in 1998 because the language is too vague.
The court "lacks the institutional competence — or the constitutional authority — to make the monumental funding and policy decisions that the petitioners (the plaintiffs) and the dissenters seek to shift to the judicial branch. And there is not a hint of any manageable judicial standards to apply in making those decisions," wrote Chief Justice Charles Canady.
There is no bigger issue in Florida than the failure of the Legislature to do right by public schools. Now the Supreme Court has punted and left Floridians with no recourse. No reasonable person could claim that Florida is meeting its constitutional promise to all of its schoolchildren. It's certainly a broken vow to any child attending a school that the state itself concludes is failing. The state even admits its own failure when it allows students at low-performing schools an "opportunity scholarship" to opt out of their "free public school." There are 18 such public schools right now in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties alone. Some see this as parental choice, but it's really a damning abdication of the state's constitutional responsibility in the first place.
Imagine where the country would be if 65 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that little Linda Brown must lose her case because the question of desegregation of public schools across the entire United States was a political one outside of the court's purview. Instead of a unanimous decision in her favor in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, what if the court had decided that it had no measures to apply to uphold the rights guaranteed by her Constitution?
Enforcing constitutional guarantees does not infringe on the separation of powers. It simply ensures citizens are not denied their constitutional rights. With this opinion, the Florida Supreme Court tries to split hairs, saying that the broad nature of the lawsuit "is fundamentally different than a challenge to a specific program or a specific funding issue." In reality, that's a distinction without a practical difference.
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Days before retiring from the court, Justice Barbara Pariente got it exactly right in her dissent: "In what judicial universe do the facts presented demonstrate that the state is fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide a 'uniform,' 'efficient,' and 'high quality' education?"
Now more than 2 million children who deserve their promised "high quality system of free public schools" have nowhere else to turn. The Florida Supreme Court will get more conservative as new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to appoint new justices to replace Pariente and two other moderates who were forced out last week by mandatory retirement. The Republican-controlled Legislature will continue to expand school choice at the expense of traditional public schools. And the voters' demand for a "high quality system of free public schools" will remain a dream.