By Wendy Lecker and Jessica Levin
On January 4, in a plurality opinion, a sharply divided Florida Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal in Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Florida State Board of Education, a broad challenge to the State’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Florida Constitution’s education article. In addition to a statewide challenge to Florida’s school funding system, the plaintiffs claimed that two school voucher programs also violated the state constitution.
The Court dismissed the claims as non-justiciable, meaning the court considers the issues best left to the legislature. The decision focused on the broad and general nature of the plaintiffs’ allegations, leaving open the possibility of adjudicating future cases based on a different and more specific factual basis.
The Citizens for Strong Schools case went to trial in 2016, after which the trial judge made findings of fact and concluded that plaintiffs failed to prove their claim. But the judge also ruled the school funding claim was non-justiciable and barred by separation of powers. The judge also rejected the voucher claims.
The non-justiciability decision was upheld in the First District Court of Appeal, Florida’s intermediate appellate court, in 2017. The First District acknowledged that many other courts across the country have ruled school funding claims are justiciable under similar, and often less specific, state constitutional provisions. However, the First District declined to follow those precedents. It chose instead to follow the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Marrero v. Commonwealth denying justiciability of school funding claims, even though three months before the First District decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disavowed Marrero and ruled that school funding claims are justiciable.
The Supreme Court Decision on School Funding
In a plurality decision, the Florida Supreme court upheld the lower court’s finding of non-justiciability.
The Supreme Court’s opinion focused on the language of the 1998 amendment to the Education Article in the Florida Constitution, which declared that education is a fundamental value and it is a “paramount duty” of the State to make “adequate provision” for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education….”
The 1998 amendment was a response to a 1996 school funding case, Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles, in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to present an appropriate standard for determining adequacy under the existing education article.
In response to the Coalition ruling, Florida voters amended the state constitution to provide standards for adequacy, namely by requiring that the school system be “efficient, safe, secure and high quality.” The amendment also emphasized that education was a “fundamental value” and reinstated the notion that education was a “paramount duty” – language that had been deleted from the constitution in 1885.
The Supreme Court noted that the trial judge found “safety” and “security” subject to judicial interpretation, but that plaintiffs withdrew claims under those standards prior to trial. The Court also noted that the trial judge held that the terms “efficient” and “high quality” were not judicially manageable standards. The Court agreed with the trial judge that these terms were too vague to provide a clear roadmap for the judiciary. Moreover, in the Court’s view, a judicial determination of adequacy would encroach on the Legislature’s appropriation power, thereby violating the separation of powers.
Two justices wrote strong dissents, in which a third justice joined. Justice Fred Lewis noted, as courts in Pennsylvania and Delaware have recently observed, that courts often interpret “vague” terms, such as “due process” and “equal protection.” Justice Barbara Pariente agreed, adding that the terms “efficient” and “high quality” are judicially manageable. She wrote that the courts are capable of analyzing whether the state is allocating resources “efficiently” in a productive manner without waste. Moreover, she noted that the Legislature, through its academic standards, has determined what a “high quality” education means in Florida.
Quoting the recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Cruz-Guzman v. State, Justice Lewis declared that a ruling of non-justiciability effectively means the Court cannot exercise its inherent function, i.e., deciding whether the state has complied with a constitutional obligation. This result would leave Education Clause claims with no judicial recourse, in violation of the principle that where there is a right, there is a remedy.
Door Left Open to Future Challenges
The Court did not agree with the “district court’s conclusion that an article IX challenge could never be justiciable.” Noting that this case was a broad, blanket challenge to the entire state school funding system, the plurality opinion explicitly left open the possibility that a different, more targeted “challenge to a specific program or a specific funding issue” could be subject to judicial review. As a result, future cases could be filed challenging inadequate teachers, staff, programs and other essential resources in specific districts or impacting specific subgroups of students.
Plaintiffs also challenged two of Florida’s school voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) and the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program (McKay), arguing that they violated the “uniformity” requirement of the education article. Deciding motions for partial summary judgement on these claims, the trial court determined that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the FTC and did not sufficiently plead their challenge to the McKay vouchers. After trial, the court found that these programs did not negatively affect the uniformity or efficiency of the public school system. The First District affirmed the rulings that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the FTC, and the McKay program did not violate the constitution.
The Supreme Court concluded that the voucher claims had not been preserved for review before the Court and, therefore, declined to address them. As with claims about school funding and resources, this leaves the door open to future voucher challenges.
Wendy Lecker and Jessica Levin are Senior Attorneys at Education Law Center
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