Prominent law firm wants out of Florida education lawsuit

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Mills
Mills

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.