A Florida appeals court began to weigh in on how, exactly, Florida is fulfilling its Constitutional obligation to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” on Tuesday.
The lawsuit centers around a 2009 lawsuit from advocacy groups and parents, who alleged Florida failed to provide a “quality” education system, in turn failing to meet its Constitutional duty to Florida students.
A Florida circuit court judge dismissed the case last year, saying the defendants had failed to provide their burden of proof.
That wasn’t the end of the line for the suit, however.
On Tuesday, the First District Court of Appeal took up the case, beginning the hearing with a series of questions aimed at the plaintiffs asking them to describe what measures Florida wasn’t meeting to provide a “high quality” education system for Florida schools.
The requirement for a high quality education system was borne from a 1998 constitutional amendment which says it is a “paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
Jodi Siegel, attorney for the advocacy groups and parents filing the suit, said Florida’s education system was clearly suffering. Evidence of the lack of a quality education system, she said, could be found in counties where low-income children were failing to meet grade-level expectations and achievement marks.
Two of the three judges weren’t convinced by Siegel’s arguments, however, pushing her to give a specific way the state was failing to provide for those students.
Siegel deflected the question and said Florida needed to put in extra effort to address the needs of Florida’s struggling students.
“We have a system in which there are such vast differences across the districts and across groups of children that we have to look to what more is needed,” Siegel said. “That has not been analyzed by the state.”
Defense attorneys for the state disagreed with Siegel’s points, saying Florida has made leaps and bounds of progress in recent years, indicating the state’s education system is on the right track for educational success.
“There has been incredible improvement and a set of policies that have been effective,” said the state’s lead defense attorney Rocco Testani. “This is not a system in any way, shape or form that is broken. It’s a system that’s working.”
Despite pointed questions, judges still remained skeptical whether or not the courts were the best place to decide how the state was meeting its Constitutional obligations.
“Shouldn’t the Legislature be required to come up with standards specifically related to this constitutional amendment?” asked Judge James Wolf, adding the Constitutional amendment would otherwise be “useless.”
Judge Bradford Thomas argued the constitutional amendment was solely an “oratory provision,”
“It is simply the people of the state of Florida telling the Legislature: ‘We want you to do as much as you can for education and the school boards, but that’s up to you,’” he said.
The panel did not reach a decision on the case during the hour-long hearing, but it is likely the case will escalate to the Florida Supreme Court.