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Florida Supreme Court Rejects Challenge On School Funding

Nick Evans
Florida Supreme Court

A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court rejected a nearly decade-old lawsuit Friday that claimed the state isn't living up to its constitutional requirement to provide a "high quality" education for all.

In doing so, the 4-3 decision Friday essentially renders meaningless a 1998 constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters that sought to strengthen guarantees for K-12 education.

The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by parents, students and advocacy groups that claimed the state wasn't properly funding schools.

The court said the lawsuit wasn't a matter for courts to settle, and that it is the Legislature's responsibility to set education funding.

"Petitioners invite this Court to not only intrude into the Legislature's appropriations power ... but to inject itself into education policy making and oversight," the opinion reads. "We decline the invitation for the courts to overstep their bounds."

The 1998 amendment approved by voters states that Florida has a "paramount duty" to provide an "efficient, safe, secure and high quality" education for students. The court, however, said the amendment didn't define how those terms should be interpreted.

The court also said the plaintiffs, which included the groups Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now, failed to show at what level schools should be funded.

But the dissenting judges issued their own scathing opinions, saying it is the court's responsibility to make sure the state is living up to its constitutional obligation. As for what voters meant when they demanded a high-quality and efficient education, the court could turn to a dictionary, the dissenting judges wrote.

"The significance of education both to the success of our children and to a functioning democracy cannot be overstated," wrote Justice Barbara Pariente. "The drafters of Florida's Constitution recognized this fact. That guarantee means nothing, however, without a judicial branch willing to perform its constitutional duty."

Pariente also cited statistics that show poor and minority students test far below students in wealthier districts — evidence that not every student is getting a quality education and there is case to be made that the state isn't following the constitution.

"And, at the center of this dispute are the students who are at the greatest risk of failing — African-American students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students and school districts, and students attending persistently low-performing schools," she wrote.

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