Florida Supreme Court Rebuffs Challenge to Public School System

Published January 16, 2019

The Florida Supreme Court ended a decade-long challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s public-school system, rejecting plaintiffs’ arguments the courts should mandate specific quality standards and order the legislature to increase funding for government schools.

The plaintiffs in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education argued the state legislature was violating Article IX, section 1(a) of Florida’s constitution. In language adopted in 1998, Article IX states, “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.”

In a four to three decision on January 4, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the adequacy of the schools is a political question for the legislature to decide, not a judicial question.

Respecting Separation of Powers

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote the plaintiffs want “the courts to order the State ‘to establish a remedial plan that . . . includes necessary studies to determine what resources and standards are necessary to provide a high quality education to Florida students.'”

This is a policy question, not a judicial one, and court restructuring of the education system would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers, Canady stated in his decision.

“The judiciary … lacks the institutional competence—or the constitutional authority—to make the monumental funding and policy decisions that the petitioners (the plaintiffs) and the dissenters seek to shift to the judicial branch,” Canady wrote. “And there is not a hint of any manageable judicial standards to apply in making those decisions.”

Targeted Education Choice

The lawsuit also pressed for the court to declare the  state’s education choice programs unconstitutional. The plaintiffs described the Florida Tax Credit Program (FTC) and McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program (McKay) as cases of government waste that divert taxpayer funds from public schools to private schools and create a separate and unequal education system.

The FTC program allows a dollar-for-dollar credit on corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for donations to scholarship-funding organizations (SFOs), nonprofit groups that provide scholarships for low-income students to attend participating private schools.

Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, says the Florida Supreme Court upheld the trial court finding that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the FTC program because it “does not involve any specific limitation on the legislature’s taxing and spending power and does not involve a disbursement of funds from the state.”

In the trial court, the plaintiffs did not show the McKay program, which is funded by taxpayers, had a negative effect on the quality of education, says Hiner.

“The lower courts also affirmed that the McKay Scholarship voucher program provided a ‘beneficial option’ for children with disabilities to access high-quality education,” Hiner said.

‘Repeatedly Defeated Politically’

Lennie Jarratt, education project manager for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says the plaintiffs went to the courts to try to force the legislature to do what they could not achieve politically.

“The plaintiffs, repeatedly defeated politically, turned to the courts,” Jarratt said. “Thankfully, the courts rejected their attempted political end run around the state’s legislature, providing an important victory for the students of Florida, many of whom have been able to choose an education that meets their individual needs because of these important scholarship programs.”

Joe Barnett ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.

Internet Info

Chief Justice Charles T. Canady et al., Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v.  Florida State Board of Education, Florida Supreme Court, opinion, January 4, 2019: