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Two Florida lawsuits seek to enforce new constitutional provisions

After plaintiffs narrowly lost a major education adequacy case in 1995, education advocates in Florida turned to the state's initiative and referendum process. Voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in the November 1998 election that dramatically strengthened the education clause. The new language in Art. IX, sec. 1 of the state constitution makes Florida's education clause one of the most strongly worded in the nation. It provides:

The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. 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.

Two recent lawsuits are now alleging that the state has failed to provide an adequate education in accordance with these enhanced requirements.

In Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Florida State Board of Education, plaintiffs, two non-profit advocacy organizations and five families, state that the new constitutional amendment is the only one in the United States that mandates all of the following: a high quality education, specific characteristics of the educational system; and the elevation of education above other governmental functions. They allege that the state has failed to meet each of these mandates.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that the state has not undertaken its “paramount duty” to provide a “high quality” education, which is defined to include both the educational system and the education obtained by the students. The facts that 1) the state’s share of funding for schools has decreased by 18% between the 2000-2001 and 2009-2010 school years, 2) Florida ranks 40th in the nation in per pupil spending, and 3) local property tax support over the same period has grown considerably means that the state has failed to “make adequate provision for education.” In addition, the plaintiffs claim that state has failed to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe secure and high quality system” in that, among other things, lower than average teacher salaries prevent Florida schools from attracting and retaining qualified teachers, misuse of standardized tests undermines accountability, and schools are not safe and secure. Poor outcomes in several areas, including graduation rates, standardized test scores and high suspension and expulsion rates, were identified as evidence that students are unable to “obtain a high quality education.” Plaintiffs have requested that the Court declare that the defendants have contravened their constitutional obligation to provide an adequate, high quality education, and order the defendants to craft a remedial plan.

Alleging that the low graduation rates for minority students in Palm Beach County evidence a failure to provide the “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality education” guaranteed by Art. IX, sec. 1 of Florida’s state constitution, plaintiffs in the second case, Aho v. State of Florida have amended and re-filed a complaint that they previously filed in the Circuit Court for Palm Beach County. In contrast to the first complaint, which listed only the Palm Beach County School Board and Superintendent as defendants, this complaint also joins as defendants the state, the governor, legislative leaders and the Florida State Board of Education and Department of Education. The new filing was necessitated by the Circuit Court’s holding last summer that there is no private right of action against individual school boards for enforcement of the right to an adequate education under Art IX, sec 1. ( See Schroeder v. Palm Beach County Sch. Bd., 10 So. 3rd 1134 ( Fla. App. 4 Dist.2009).

The innovative approach taken by the plaintiffs in this case alleges a constitutional deficiency based on the inadequacy of schooling outputs ( i.e. low graduation rates for minority students) rather than on inadequacies in educational inputs ( i.e. funding, teacher quality, facilities, etc.). The relief requested is to require the defendants to “improve the overall graduation rate” rather than, as in most adequacy cases, to reform the state education finance system to provide additional resources to high needs districts. In focusing on results, plaintiffs also assert that even if the disparity in graduation rates between white and minority students can be attributed to socioeconomic or immigrant status, “the state has a constitutional obligation to develop and implement programs and measures that enable all of its students to graduate, regardless of race or ethnicity” and to provide them “a meaningful opportunity to graduate from high school.”