Prominent law firm wants out of Florida education lawsuit



One of the key legal advisers behind a lawsuit challenging multiple aspects of Florida’s education system is asking to withdraw from the case, at the same time his law firm is backing a national legal push aimed at changing education policies around the country.

Jon Mills, a former speaker of the Florida House, is an architect of a state constitutional provision at the center of the so-called adequacy lawsuit and helped guide the case when it was first filed in 2009. Earlier this month, however, he filed court papers asking a judge to withdraw his firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP — from the case.

The firm’s chairman, David Boies, is leading an effort to challenge teacher tenure laws in New York. He’s indicated in recent media interviews that he plans to pursue similar lawsuits elsewhere, and may wade into issues like funding equity.

Boies said in an interview with The Washington Post that he is crafting a state-by-state strategy regarding teacher tenure because many state constitutions explicitly require the provision of an equal education to all public school students.

“Our initial approach is state law,” he said. “And we’ll see how much progress we can make using state law.”

The U.S. Constitution does not include the right to education. But civil rights activists used the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment — which says that no state shall deny to any person “the equal protection of the laws” — as the basis for Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that put an end to racially segregated schools.

Bringing arguments in state court can help lay the groundwork for an eventual Supreme Court case, Boies said. He noted that the fight for gay marriage was initially waged state-by-state. “It helped frame the issue,” Boies said. “It helped raise people’s knowledge about the issue.”

When Florida’s drawn-out legal battle began picking up steam earlier this year, what began as a suit focused on adequate school funding expanded into a number of other areas, challenging multiple school choice programs and the system for evaluating teachers.

Mills was among the backers of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998, which requires the Legislature to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” As he explained during a forum last fall at the University of Florida, the goal was to create legally enforceable standards for the quality of the state’s school system.

He has since helped advise the plaintiffs in the Florida adequacy lawsuit, which argues the state has failed to live up to those standards.

The Gainesville-based public interest group Southern Legal Counsel has been serving as lead counsel in the case. In the legal filing seeking to withdraw from the case, Mills doesn’t provide details about what prompted the move, but indicates it would not delay progress in the case, which is scheduled to be heard in a Leon County courtroom next summer.


Florida roundup: Charter schools, testing, Broad Prize and more

Tax credit scholarships. A student receiving a scholarship overcomes homelessness and excels in high school. Miami Herald. The Tampa Tribune analyzes the program’s growth.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Charters account for one-third of Hillsborough’s enrollment growth. Tampa Bay Times. Sarasota school officials criticize four charter applications. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Naples Daily News follows an in-depth series on charter schools with an editorial calling for changes.

Broad Prize. Orange County Public Schools share in the national award for urban districts. Florida TodayOrlando SentinelAssociated PressEducation Week.  WESH. News 13.

School choice. With some schools overcrowded and others under capacity, Palm Beach schools may give parents more choices. Palm Beach Post.

Magnet schools. Plans for Pasco’s first magnet school are taking shape. Gradebook.

Testing. A Gainesville teacher’s testing revolt prompts a town-hall meeting at her school. Gainesville Sun. Parents discuss opting out. Florida Today. Testing is a part of life, and has improved results for students, incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli argues in a Florida Today op-ed.

Continue Reading →


State, parents defend Florida school choice legislation in court

A judge should leave Florida’s newest school choice legislation intact, lawyers for the parents of special needs children argue in court papers filed Friday.

The parents are intervening to defend the state’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program from a lawsuit challenging the legislation that created it.

The suit, backed by the statewide teachers union, argues lawmakers violated the “single-subject” rule in the state constitution by inserting multiple education issues into one bill on the last day of this spring’s legislative session.

The parents’ legal filing argues that passing last-minute legislation with multiple provisions tacked on is a common practice. Their lawyers estimate that since 1997 the state has passed some 27 pieces of legislation that – like SB 850 – were described simply as “an act relating to education” and in many cases included a wide range of education-related provisions.

“The single subject rule does not provide a vehicle to second-guess the Legislature’s broad power to provide opportunities to Florida students,” their brief argues. “A judicial action nullifying this law would not only arrest the Legislature’s ability to address the complexities and challenges of education in the 21st Century, but also would deprive thousands of Florida schoolchildren of the opportunities provided by this law.”

The brief was part of a barrage of recent filings in the case, which will be argued Wednesday in a Tallahassee circuit court.

The state has questioned whether the lead plaintiff, a Lee County public school teacher, can even bring the case, arguing he can’t show how the new law causes him any harm. The plaintiffs responded to those arguments Friday, and the state also filed a separate defense of the school choice legislation, which notes among other things that “the Legislature routinely enacts legislation with numerous sections.”

The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for special needs students are administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.


Florida NAACP seeks to remove local leader who backs school choice

Rev. Sykes

Rev. Sykes

The Florida NAACP is moving to oust a local chapter president who contends the move was prompted by his appearance at a rally supporting the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

The state chapter, which is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last month to end Florida’s 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program, informed Rev. Manuel Sykes on Sept. 11 that he would be stripped of his presidency of the organization’s St. Petersburg chapter, and that the local branch would be reorganized.

The move followed an audit of Sykes’ group and months of discussions with the statewide organization about membership, bookkeeping and other issues. It also came two weeks after Sykes appeared at a rally in Tallahassee supporting Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which is serving 68,000 low-income students this fall, 70 percent of them black or Hispanic. (The program is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

“The only thing they had to sink their teeth in was my appearance and presence at the rally,” Sykes told redefinED in an interview. “They couldn’t have used those small bookkeeping issues to do what they did.”

The NAACP has been a staunch opponent of publicly funded private school choice options like vouchers and tax credit scholarships. That position has at times created tensions with black parents, other civil rights groups and internally.

Sykes has come out in support of school choice programs in the past, but the rally in Tallahassee was held the same day the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association, Florida NAACP and other groups filed suit. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, charter schools, campaigns and more

Tax credit scholarships. Enrollment in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program continues to grow. Associated Press.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. The Naples Daily News wraps up an in-depth series by examining charter school oversight and officials’ desire to promote good charters while cracking down on poor performers. School districts in Manatee and Volusia recommend rejecting charter applications. Daytona Beach News-JournalBradenton Herald.

Campaigns. Gov. Rick Scott and challenger Charlie Crist’s respective positions on tax credit scholarships are discussed in governors race coverage. Times/Herald. Palm Beach Post. School board candidates in East Hillsborough stake out conservative positions. Tampa Bay Times.

School choice. A Sun-Sentinel guest column responds to an earlier pro-charter school op-ed with a broadside against its author, charter school lobbyist and former Education Commissioner Jim Horne.

Broad Prize. Orange County school officials await today’s announcement of the prestigious award, for which their district is a finalist. Orlando Sentinel.

Continue Reading →


Dozens of Florida charter schools lose ‘high-performing’ status after reviews

More than three dozen Florida charter schools have lost “high-performing” status since a new state law required them to have their designation reviewed annually.

The state allows charter schools with good grades and sound finances to be labeled high-performing, which entitles them to certain privileges under the law.

Legislation passed in 2013, which some charter school advocates say needs to be clarified, requires the state to review high-performing charter schools every year to see if they still qualify. In the two years since the change, 37 schools  including 16 after this summer’s release of school grades  have lost their status as high-performing schools.

Losing that status can affect schools’ budgets or expansion plans. High-performing charters pay lower administrative fees to school districts. They are allowed to enter 15-year charter contracts, and state law lets them to expand or replicate more easily.

Charters can only qualify for high-performing status if they receive two A’s in 3 years and nothing less than a B. They also have to keep a clean bill of financial health.

Rod Sasse, a vice president with Imagine Schools, said the Imagine School at South Lake received a letter earlier this month announcing it had lost high-performing status. The state graded the school a C this year. But he said the school might have kept the designation if the law had not been changed last year. He pointed to this provision from the original high-performing charter law:

(4) A high-performing charter school may not increase enrollment or expand grade levels following any school year in which it receives a school grade of “C” or below. If the charter school receives a school grade of “C” or below in any 2 years during the term of the charter awarded under subsection (2), the term of the charter may be modified by the sponsor and the charter school loses its high-performing charter school status until it regains that status under subsection (1).

Sasse said that provision, which remains on the books, suggests a charter could remain high-performing unless it receives multiple grades of C or lower. Under last year’s legislation, charter schools can only remain high-performing if they meet these standards each year:

(1) A charter school is a high-performing charter school if it:
(a) Received at least two school grades of “A” and no school grade below “B,” pursuant to s. 1008.34, during each of the previous 3 school years.
(b) Received an unqualified opinion on each annual financial audit required under s. 218.39 in the most recent 3 fiscal years for which such audits are available.
(c) Did not receive a financial audit that revealed one or more of the financial emergency conditions set forth in s. 218.503(1) in the most recent 3 fiscal years for which such audits are available. However, this requirement is deemed met for a charter school-in-the-workplace if there is a finding in an audit that the school has the monetary resources available to cover any reported deficiency or that the deficiency does not result in a deteriorating financial condition pursuant to s. 1002.345(1)(a)3.

State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, heard concerns charter advocates’ concerns about the potentially conflicting requirements during a recent task force meeting in Fort Lauderdale. She said it might make sense to clarify the rules so that once they earn the status initially, charters can remain high-performing if they maintain “all B’s, all A’s, or any combination thereof.”

School districts can only keep 2 percent of high-performing charters’ funding to cover their oversight costs, instead of the usual 5 percent. As a result, Sasse said some schools fearing an immediate hit to their budget might look for ways to stave off action by the state until the Legislature has a chance to clarify the rules.

There are currently a total of 148 high-performing charters in the state, including nine that achieved the status recently. Here are the 16 schools that lost high-performing status after this summer’s release of school grades. In most cases, they either slipped from a B to a C, or they earned a B for the second year in a row. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, trademarks, testing and more

Charter schools. The latest installments of a Naples Daily News investigation look at low performing charters and teacher pay. Pinellas charters with low test scores present turnaround plans to the school board. Tampa Bay Times. The Sarasota school district may intervene with two financially struggling charter schools. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual schools. The state Supreme Court upholds Florida Virtual School’s right to sue over trademark infringement. Gradebook. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. redefinED.

Private schools. A prominent Tampa Catholic school gets million-dollar donations as it looks to transform its campus. Tampa Bay Times.

Lawsuits. Duval County’s Republicans pass a resolution opposing a challenge of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. WJCT.

Tax Credit Scholarships. Parents appear before the Pinellas school board to advocate for the program. Gradebook.

Testing. An anti-testing resolution is coming to another Florida school boards group. Fort Myers News-Press. The statewide teachers union releases its own anti-testing resolution. Fort Myers News-Press. The Gainesville Sun looks at end of course exams.

Continue Reading →


Fla. Supreme Court sides with Florida Virtual School in K12 trademark case

Florida Virtual School has the authority to sue to protect its trademarks, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The decision is the latest twist in a long-running legal battle between FLVS and online education company K12, Inc., Florida’s two largest players in online education.

FLVS sued its rival provider for trademark infringement in 2011.

The suit argues K12 used names like Florida Virtual Academy and Florida Virtual Program, which were too similar to Florida Virtual School and caused “confusion” in the online education marketplace. As noted in this summary of the case by Education Week, however, K12 uses the name “virtual academy” in other states.

K12 argued the state virtual school did not have the authority to sue to protect its trademarks, since Florida law gives that authority to the Department of State. A federal appeals court asked the state Supreme Court to resolve that issue.

In Thursday’s unanimous opinion, justices said Florida Virtual School has the power to sue to protect its trademarks and other intellectual property because, unlike some other government entities, state law gives FLVS all the powers of a corporation.

Continue Reading →