Florida’s First District Court of Appeals has thrown out a sweeping lawsuit alleging Florida violated its own constitution by failing to provide funding for “high quality” public schools.

The three-judge panel ruled unanimously to toss the suit on Wednesday. 

The original lawsuit, filed in 2009, asked state judges to determine whether or not Florida had provided adequate funding for thousands of public schools in Florida’s 67 counties, which serve nearly 3 million students each year. 

The suit, whose plaintiffs include education advocacy groups Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now, in addition to several parents, was filed against the Florida State Board of Education, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, demanding the state create a “remedial plan” to deal with budget cuts for “constitutional deficiencies” in Florida schools.

Plaintiffs argued Florida has a poor accountability system riddled with problems like low test scores and graduation rates. 

The suit was thrown out by a Circuit Court judge last year, who said the plaintiffs couldn’t meet the burden of proof to show the state wasn’t maintaining its constitutional commitment to Florida’s education system.

Attorneys for the state pointed to 20 years of progress for Florida’s education system, which has steadily improved graduation rates and overall academic successes. 

Florida’s graduation rate has soared over the last two decades, with almost 78 percent of high schoolers graduating in 2015

“Any way you look at this system … there has been incredible improvement and a set of policies that have been effective,” the state’s lead defense attorney Rocco Testani said last year. “This is not a system in any way shape or form that is broken; it’s a system that’s working.”

The First District Court of Appeals began hearing the case in July and the suit finally appeared to reach the end of the lengthy legal road on Wednesday. 

Among the rulings from the judges: appellants still hadn’t met the burden of proof to show how Florida was failing to meet its constitutional commitment, and the John M. McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities – which affects only 30,000 students and does not materially impact the K-12 public school system – provides “a benefit to help disabled students obtain a high quality education” and doesn’t violate the state constitution either.

The three-judge panel also found there was no way to quantifiably define or gauge the terms “adequate,” “efficient,” and “high quality.”

Siding with the appellants, the court said, would ultimately lead to more trouble in an area where the judges said they had no power.

“To agree with Appellants would entangle courts in the details and execution of educational policies and related appropriations, involving millions of students and billions of dollars, in an arena in which the courts possess no special competence or specific constitutional authority,” the judges wrote.

 

Reach reporter Allison Nielsen by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen.


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