Plaintiffs want Florida education lawsuit fast-tracked to Supreme Court

Arguing there’s an urgent need to help students trapped in “failing schools,” the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s funding of public schools and a wide swath of its education policies want to appeal the case directly to the state Supreme Court.

A Leon County circuit judge in late May issued a sweeping ruling dismissing the lawsuit, finding Florida’s funding levels, accountability rules and school choice programs did not violate constitutional provisions that establish a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality” public school system as a “paramount” obligation of the state.

Late last month, the plaintiffs (a coalition of parents, students and advocacy groups) appealed the ruling. In subsequent court documents, they argued the case should bypass the First District Court of Appeal to reach a speedier resolution.

Jodi Siegel, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, wrote that since the suit was first filed in 2009, “a generation of children have failed to achieve.”

“This eight-year ramble through the Florida court system is harming the students who are not achieving and are not being offered the high quality education they need to succeed,” she wrote in a legal document filed last week.

On Wednesday, however, lawyers for the state countered that the appellate court should have a chance to weigh in. Appeals only head straight to the Supreme Court in rare, urgent circumstances, such as a case affecting a pending election, they wrote. And outcomes for students in Florida’s public schools have improved since the case was first filed.

[The parents and advocacy groups] never sought emergency or injunctive relief during the previous seven years of this litigation, and they argued at trial that the declaratory relief they did seek would be just a “recommendation” that “is out there for discussion.”

The case wound its way through the courts for more than three years after it was first filed. In 2012, the state Supreme Court declined to hear arguments on whether Florida’s constitution lays out “judicially ascertainable standards” for what constitutes a high-quality education, and the case restarted.

Then, in 2014, the scope of the lawsuit grew, as the plaintiffs added legal arguments taking aim at charter schools and private school choice programs. The Institute for Justice intervened in the case, representing school choice parents.

Meanwhile, court documents filed last month show the plaintiffs, who are represented by Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel, a small public-interest legal group, could face a hefty bill if they don’t prevail on appeal.

Under Florida law, the losing party in a court case can be forced to cover the other side’s bills, which in this case include $378,799.81 in travel expenses, expert witness fees and other costs associated with the defending the case, according to court documents filed by the state’s legal team.


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