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Justices Reject Challenge to State Education System

January 5, 2019 - 6:00am

A fiercely divided Florida Supreme Court on Friday rejected a nearly decade-long lawsuit that challenged whether the state has properly carried out a 1998 constitutional amendment that called for ensuring a “high quality” system of public schools.

The decision upheld lower-court rulings and focused heavily on the role of the judiciary in addressing sweeping issues such as the quality of public schools. A main opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady, Justice Alan Lawson and Associate Justice Edward LaRose said plaintiffs in the case failed “to present any manageable standard by which to avoid judicial intrusion into the powers of the other branches of government.”

Canady, in a concurring opinion, was more pointed, saying the “manifest goal” of the plaintiffs and three dissenting justices “is to put educational funding and educational policy firmly under the control of the judiciary.”

“The judiciary is very good at making certain types of decisions --- that is, judicial decisions,” wrote Canady, who was joined by Lawson and LaRose in the concurring opinion. “But it 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. Instead, if the petitioners and the dissenters had their way, judges would simply apply their own policy preferences.”

Justice Jorge Labarga sided with Canady, Lawson and LaRose but did not sign on to the main opinion or the concurring opinion. LaRose is a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal but was added to the case after Justice Ricky Polston recused himself.

Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince joined in two dissenting opinions, with Pariente writing that the court majority “eviscerates” the 1998 constitutional amendment, “contrary to the clear intent of the voters, and abdicates its responsibility to interpret this critical provision.”

“My friends and colleagues in the majority make a very grave and harmful mistake today,” Lewis wrote in another dissent. “Although I understand their good-faith and well-intentioned approach, only time will truly reveal the depth of the injury inflicted upon Florida’s children. The words describing the right to a high quality education and the constitutional concept of protecting that right ring hollow without a remedy to protect the right.”

The 1998 constitutional amendment said it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.

The group Citizens for Strong Schools and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2009, arguing that Florida has not properly complied with the constitutional amendment and pointing to issues such as many students not being able to read at grade level. After holding a trial, however, a Leon County circuit judge ruled against the plaintiffs in 2016.

The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld that ruling and said arguments about the state failing to adequately provide for public schools “raise political questions not subject to judicial review.” That prompted the plaintiffs to appeal to the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments in November, plaintiffs’ attorney Jodi Siegel said the case should be sent back to a circuit judge to apply standards that would properly determine whether the state is meeting the constitutional requirements.

“We have current standards and current measurements that are showing significant disparities,” Siegel said at the time. “We had 670,000 children that are failing reading. So this is not a child or two. This is a systemic failure.”

But Rocco Testani, an attorney for the state, told justices that the state has made changes since 1998 that have led to significant improvements in the public-school system.

“It has been successful, it has worked,” Testani said. “It is not a system that anyone should be concerned is broken.”

The opinions Friday shared by Canady, Lawson and LaRose focused on issues such as the separation of powers between courts and other branches of government and the difficulty for judges in deciding such a “blanket” challenge to the education system.

“There is no reason to believe that the judiciary is competent to make these complex and difficult policy choices,” Canady wrote in the concurring opinion. “And there is every reason to believe that arrogating such policy choices to the judiciary would do great violence to the separation of powers established in our Constitution.”

But in her dissent, which was joined by Lewis and Quince, Pariente wrote that, with Friday’s decision, “the majority of this (Supreme) Court fails to provide any judicial remedy for the students who are at the center of this lawsuit --- African American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, and students who attend school in poorer school districts or attend persistently low-performing schools.”

“Certainly, I recognize that the task of making adequate provision for a high quality education is primarily for the Legislature. We are not legislators. We are justices charged with enforcing the rights set forth in Florida’s Constitution,” Pariente wrote. “That is why with (the part of the Constitution that includes the 1998 amendment), the citizens of this state intended for compliance --- or noncompliance --- with that provision to be adjudicated by the judiciary when properly brought to the court. Indeed, the task of construing the Constitution and determining whether the state is fulfilling its express obligations required by the Constitution --- and the citizens of this state who approved the relevant constitutional language --- is solely the judiciary’s task.”


Whatever. The politicos made sure the 1998 amendment became irrelevant and Florida public education has been going downhill since. and, that downward spiral has coincided directly with continued Republican governance of this state since 1998.

There was a case in Long Island, NY many years ago where a mother sued the school system because her son could not hold a job for lack of basic skills in math and reading. The Judge ruled it is not the responsibility of the school to teach your child it is the responsibility of the parent to teach the child. I thought, wow. Why does Public Education fight parent involvement? Public education has devolved into cottage business of feeding from the public trough without considering the welfare of the students. Get Government out of Education and put Parents in charge.

I am saddened by the ruling in Friday’s court case to have public education governed under a Judicial law! I understand why Judicial law is not prepared to take on the task! However something must be done!! The State of Florida needs an educational makeover ! Our teachers and Administrators are not taught the science behind reading. Whole word literacy is not the way to teach struggling readers to read! If we continue to teach in failing method we will continually fail and Florida will always be amongs the worst educational systems in America! We pay our teachers the least we don’t give them proper Professional Development ( tools they need to be success in teaching all children). If these means a board of educated parents that help the state develop a viable plan to remedy the lack of properly educating our children. Then please sign me up!! All children deserve the opportunity to learn to read, write and calculate math problems accurately!

Can it be possible that "common-sense" might actually become prevalent in Florida's Supreme Court, at some point...(but apparently not without the "split decision safety valve" so very common in our so-called "High"-court decisions....). The "new judicial American way": Appease EVERYONE,.. even if it requires "threatening to cut the baby in half" (...a la an historic fairy tale version of "King Solomon") in order to arrive at a correct 'political' decision..

Is it an educational systemic failure or a societal failure that accounts for low performing students? When I started my educational career I did not have to teach crack babies or students who assaulted teachers as part of a gang initiation! Lack of Discipline in our homes and in our schools have led to students who terrorize both students and teachers without appropriate consequences. I spent 18 of my 43 teachning years in low income or inner city schools. Student behavior was always a major issue. You spent an inordinate amount of time monitoring and/or correcting behavior to maintain a positive learning environment and protect other students, however, fights and bullying would still occur in the neighborhoods. NOW students bring those neighborhood fights into the halls of the schools. A year ago, I protected a student who was being beaten up by two girls who entered my classroom when another student left to go to the bathroom. I separated the most vicious agreesor from the fight and blocked her in a ,basketball maneuver. When she couldn’t get by she threw four punches at my face which I blocked thanks to martial arts training two decades ago. When she could not get by me, she tripped and pushed me sending me flying back more than 3 feet onto a concrete floor. The investigating school officers said “ she had no intent to harm you and actually likes you”. There was no punishment for her assault on me. I was told that I made the choice to intervene and the resultant injuries were the result of that intervention, therefore, no action would be taken.The two assailants destroyed a brand new laptop, gave their victim a concussion and multiple contusions and there was a video that showed their heinous attacks. They both got 3 days suspension which is what other kids get for throwing a single punch! The victim’s mother went to the state attorney and got the assailants placed on probation, however, one of them has violated those terms 3 times without repercussions!

I entered public elementary school in the early 1930s. My first and second grade teacher ( both grades taught simultaneously in one classroom) was a direct descendant of Miles Standish and she believed wholeheartedly in "tough love" even though it would be many years before that phrase was coined. There were no teacher assistants, she handled both classes by herself. She used a paddle on you in the "office" the first time you misbehaved and rarely did any student repeat the behavior. If you did, the next step she took was to contact your parents whereupon you got more corrective measures applied by them, usually a sound spanking along with denial of certain privileges. Your academic achievements were recognized at special events held at the school with the Parent Teachers Association which provided positive incentive to do well in all student activities. It was all helped by the fact the village we lived in was populated mostly by immigrant families from Europe, primarily Finland, other Scandinavian countries, Portugal, and Italy most of whom stressed the importance of education to their offspring.

Bring back the "school paddle", and legitimate "corporal punishment" (since parents have abandoned their responsibilities). While you're at it, give cops back their "nightsticks" to regain simple compliance with LAW and proper social interaction. (It all "worked" until the 1990's)

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