Appeals Court Dismisses Florida School-Funding Lawsuit

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on December 14, 2017 8:29 am

A Florida appeals court on Wednesday shot down a lawsuit over public school funding, saying it raises "political questions" that cannot be answered by judges.

For eight years, education groups and parents from two counties have pursued a lawsuit that contends a lack of funding for Florida's schools has been damaging to minorities and students from poor families. The lawsuit has maintained that state legislators were flouting a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1998.

But in its ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal maintained that the state constitution did not contain a way for judges to determine if Florida had violated its "paramount duty" to provide for a "high quality system of free public schools."

Chief Judge Brad Thomas, who was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, wrote in the ruling that "in a republican form of government founded on democratic rule, it must be the elected representatives and executives who make the difficult and profound decisions regarding how our children are to be educated."

Jodi Siegel, a lawyer representing the groups that filed the lawsuit, blasted the ruling.

"By holding that the case presents a 'political question,' the court essentially has allowed the Legislature absolute freedom with no accountability," Siegel wrote in an email. "We disagree and believe that the Florida Constitution, which provides the strongest education language in the U.S., demands more."

Siegel did not know if her clients would appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Following a four-week trial last year that included a parade of education experts and a dizzying array of statistics, a circuit judge concluded that the groups and parents who sued the state failed to show evidence of a crisis that required the courts to step in.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds also questioned whether he even had the legal authority to "second-guess" legislators and the governor, saying that such a decision could lead to "a quagmire" for the courts.

The appeals court decision to uphold Reynolds' ruling is another victory for the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and other top state officials who had spent at least $4 million defending the state since the lawsuit was first filed back in 2009. The legal challenge had the potential to upend the state's entire school system because it also challenged Florida's use of standardized testing, private school vouchers and charter schools.

Another key part of Wednesday's ruling also maintained that a state program that provides private school vouchers to about 30,000 disabled children is constitutional.

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