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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Florida's lawmakers have failed education

From Tampa's editorial board

When the people of Florida adopted a constitutional amendment in 1998 directing lawmakers to make "high quality" free public education a "paramount duty" of the state, the expectation was that legislators would raise educational excellence and funding to a top priority. But Florida ranks 41st among the 50 states in total per-pupil funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the state's high school graduation rates and SAT scores rank near the bottom of the nation. Now the Florida Supreme Court is being asked whether a lawsuit that challenges this legislative negligence should be allowed to proceed — something the state is vigorously fighting. This shouldn't be a close call. Florida's leaders should have to defend their record on education in court.

The initial lawsuit brought by Florida public school students, parents and two education-related nonprofits says that Florida leaders have not followed the dictates of the state Constitution, which require Florida to make "adequate provision" for a "high quality system of free public schools." Their suit alleges that graduation rates are too low, student achievement too iffy and the money the state provides for education, particularly in teachers' salaries, is inadequate.

These kind of lawsuits, which ask courts to evaluate whether lawmakers are upholding the state Constitution's educational adequacy guarantees, have been around for decades. Across the country, state courts have been generally willing to adopt judicial standards of educational quality, holding their Legislatures accountable for meeting adequate funding and other educational objectives. Only a minority have taken a hands-off approach, claiming that to second-guess the Legislature would violate the separation of powers.

This latter argument is the basis of a challenge by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and others, who asked the 1st District Court of Appeal for a "writ of prohibition" to halt the education lawsuit filed against them on the grounds that educational quality is a political issue for the Legislature alone. In an 8-7 ruling on Nov. 23, the appellate court denied their request and certified the question to the Florida Supreme Court as a matter of great public importance. The high court has the discretion to accept the case or not.

This is a valuable opportunity for the high court to protect the will of the people. The situation today is very different from what it was in 1996, when the high court ruled in Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding Inc. vs. Chiles that lawmakers should be given "enormous discretion" to interpret the state Constitution's requirement for an adequate and uniform public school system. After that case, the 1997-1998 Constitution Revision Commission proposed a constitutional amendment to provide measurable education standards. Floridians approved an amendment that made education a "fundamental value" and a "paramount duty" and required the system to be not just uniform but "efficient, safe, secure, and high quality."

The courts are empowered to uphold Florida's Constitution when it's sidestepped by the other branches. A case challenging whether lawmakers are fulfilling the Constitution's education mandate should be allowed to proceed, with each side's claims judged on the merits. That's how accountability is supposed to work in a democracy.

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