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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If politicians won't listen to teachers judges will have too.

From the editorial board

It was with much fanfare that Gov. Rick Scott embarked on his “listening tour” of public schools last week. But in regard to the future of public education finance in this state, it may be that the more important listener will be wearing judicial robes.

Last Tuesday the Florida Supreme Court rejected a plea by state legislators seeking to have legal challenges to how they fund public education thrown out of court.

Two advocacy groups, Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now, have filed suits that are essentially intended to find out whether Article 9 of the Florida Constitution is worth the paper it’s printed on.

The amendment mandates that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

It was approved by Florida voters in 1998, presumably because they wanted, and didn’t mind paying for, “high quality” public schools.

But if that was the intent—the mandate—then state lawmakers didn’t get the memo.

In recent years, “The Florida Legislature has cut funds to public education by $4 billion,” Kathleen Oropeza, of Fund Education Now, told the Capitol News Service last week.

Legislators have argued that the courts have no business telling them how much money they have to give to schools; that funding the state budget is a legislative prerogative.

If they are right, then it truly does mean that Article 9 isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, and that the definition of “high quality” public schools is whatever the Legislature says it is.

But the state Supreme Court last week cleared the way for filers of the litigation to at least argue their case before a trial judge.

Ultimately, the judiciary may well decide that the Legislature’s “power of the purse” can’t be infringed upon; that Article 9 is no enforceable mandate at all.

Even so, it’s a fight worth waging.

“We get to have our day in court. We get to present the evidence and we get to have this discussion in front of the people in the light of day,” Oropeza said.

We don’t know whether Gov. Scott was really listening or not on his much-touted school tour, but at least we know that, at some point, a judge is going to listen.

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