Appeals court rejects education lawsuit, upholds Florida special needs vouchers

A three-judge panel on a Florida appellate court has tossed an 8-year-old lawsuit taking aim at 20 years of state education policy.

Today’s ruling upholds an earlier trial court decision hailed as a victory for education reformers who defended school choice, testing and other policies targeted by the lawsuit.

It also adds to the ledger of lawsuits around the country that hit roadblocks trying to force states to increase public school funding.

The First District Court of Appeal’s decision is noteworthy for another reason. It finds a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that found private school vouchers violate the Florida constitution does not threaten vouchers for children with special needs.

Judge Bradford Thomas writes that when the high court struck down Opportunity Scholarships for private schools in Bush v. Holmes, justices left the door open to reach different conclusions about the constitutionality of other school choice programs.

And McKay Scholarships, he writes, are different. About 30,000 students with special needs, less than 1 percent of Florida’s K-12 students, currently use the scholarships to attend private schools.

In his opinion, with which two other judges concur, Thomas rejects the plaintiffs’ argument that McKay Scholarships violate the constitutional requirement for the state to provide a “uniform” system of “high quality” public schools.

The McKay Scholarship Program offers a beneficial option for disabled students to help ensure they can have a “high quality” education. As the trial court recognized, “research has shown that the McKay program has a positive effect on the public schools, both in terms of lessening the incentive to over-identify students and by increasing the quality of services of the students with disabilities in the public schools.” It is difficult to perceive how a modestly sized program designed to provide parents of disabled children with more educational opportunities to ensure access to a high quality education could possibly violate the text or spirit of a constitutional requirement of a uniform system of free public schools.

Public education activists filed the lawsuit in 2009, arguing Florida had unconstitutionally underfunded public schools. In 2014, they widened the case to attack several school choice programs. The League of Women Voters later joined the case, siding with the plaintiffs.

A group of parents whose children used scholarship programs intervened with the help of lawyers from the Institute for Justice. Before today’s ruling, they had already argued successfully that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Florida tax credit scholarship program — a conclusion other judges had also reached.

Ari Bargil, an attorney in IJ’s Florida office, welcomed the ruling affirming McKay Scholarships.

“The Court’s ruling means that these students will not be forced, against the will of their parents, to return to whichever public school their zip code dictates,” he said. “This Court correctly recognized that school choice programs expand opportunity and achievement for students, and without doing so at the expense of the public school system.”

Following the trial court’s lead, the appellate court has ruled it lacks the authority to force the state to enact specific education policies. For more on the ruling, see these reports from the Orlando Sentinel and Gradebook.

Update: The Associated Press gets the plaintiffs’ perspective.

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.

 

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