Yesterday, thirteen Florida school boards filed their long-awaited lawsuit challenging a massive new education law approved earlier this year.
Under this far-reaching law, the State has encroached on the authority vested by the Florida Constitution in locally elected district school boards to operate, control, and supervise the local public schools located in their respective jurisdictions.
In other words, the school boards argue they are defending their power under Article IX, Section 4 of the state constitution to control all free public schools in their geographic areas.
That power is not absolute. Courts have held the state Legislature and Board of Education have authority to regulate, and even overrule local school boards.
The lawsuit, however, claims the new law oversteps the state’s authority. Here is a breakdown of the specific arguments
Capital outlay funding
This portion of the lawsuit largely mirrors a case the Palm Beach County School Board filed last month. It challenges provisions requiring school districts to share local property tax revenue with qualifying charter schools on a roughly even per-student basis.
“Locally elected district school boards, including Plaintiffs, thus are stripped of all authority, judgment, and discretion about the best use of these funds, which they are constitutionally authorized to levy,” the lawsuit contends.
The suit also argues the new law violates Article VII, Sections 1 and 9. Those sections of the Florida constitution limit property taxing authority to specific local governments — including school boards. The districts argue charter schools and the state don’t have that authority. And therefore, they contend, the law “unconstitutionally directs that funds legally levied and collected by school boards be reallocated to charter schools without any control by, or even input from, the locally elected school boards.”
Schools of Hope
The new law creates a streamlined process for proven charter school operators that want to open in areas served by struggling public schools. They do not have to go through the normal charter application and negotiation process. Instead, the law requires school boards to negotiate performance-based contracts with “Hope Operators” after they submit a “notice of intent” to open new schools.
If local school boards refuse, Hope Operators can enter performance contracts with the state Board of Education instead.
The plaintiffs argue this violates Article IX, Section 4, which gives school boards the power to “control and supervise” all free public schools in their geographic areas.
A state appeals court cited that provision several years ago when it struck down a law creating a statewide charter school authorizer. But the constitution gives the state power to check local school boards’ decision-making. For example, courts have repeatedly upheld the state board’s authority to overturn local school boards that reject charter applications.
Local Education Agencies
Two Florida charter school networks already function as Local Education Agencies. One of them is located in Polk County, where the school district is among those suing.
Changes in the law prompted two more charter systems to apply to become LEAs. That would give them more direct control over state and local funding. One of those charter networks is in Jefferson County, which became an all-charter public school system before the new law passed. The other is in Orange County, where the school district is also among the plaintiffs.
The districts argue that allowing more charter school organizations to form district-like entities creates “parallel” public school systems and violates the constitutional mandate for a “uniform” public-school system.
School boards for years have pushed back on attempts to standardize charter school contracts across the state.
The new law creates a “presumption” that if districts place requirements on charter schools beyond what’s in the state’s standard charter contract, they’re reducing charter school flexibility.
The districts argue this undermines their constitutional authority.
A controversial provision in HB 7069 requires school boards to send most of the money they receive for federal Title I programs directly to schools that qualify.
School boards contend the new law limits their ability to use federal funding for district-wide programs that help low-income students. The lawsuit argues the law reduces “locally elected district school boards’ authority to use federal Title I funds for purposes they deem to be the most educationally beneficial and most likely to effectively address the educational needs of low-income students within their respective jurisdictions.”
That, the plaintiffs argue, violates the same constitutional provision cited throughout the lawsuit: Article IX, Section 4(b), which says each local school board “shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”
This portion of the lawsuit cites Hamilton County, the only district in the lawsuit without charter schools.
The state Board of Education ordered dramatic changes in the rural North Florida district, which has struggled for years to turn around its only middle and high school. The move came weeks after Gov. Rick Scott approved the new law, which set a more aggressive timetable for school turnarounds.
The lawsuit argues that in Hamilton, the “effect of the new turnaround provision could be that the role of the locally elected district school board with respect to secondary education is eliminated entirely.”
That would not happen under the plan Hamilton County is expected to bring before the state board this week. The school board has proposed bringing in an “external partner” to run the school. That could involve an outside organization that specializes in school improvement, which the school board would supervise. Or it could include a charter school operated by the district and overseen by an independent local board. The law says external partners need to have a demonstrated track record of success, and it’s not clear how the state board will view those options. (Update 10/18: The state board has approved Hamilton’s plan.)
The court filing notes the turnaround sections of the new law could soon bring similar changes in other districts — including some plaintiffs — in the near future. And it argues the new law reduces school boards’ authority to decide for themselves how to turn around low-performing schools.
Worth keeping in mind
Lawmakers added a “severability” clause to HB 7069. That means if a court knocks down one part of the wide-ranging law, other portions could still stand.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be watching as the state answers the charges in the initial lawsuit. And we’ll see how charter schools defend the portions that affect them.