Groups challenge Fla. charter school ballot proposal

Travis Pillow

The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center are challenging the wording of a Florida ballot measure that could, among other things, overhaul charter school authorizing in the state.

The proposed Amendment 8 would do three things if voters approve it this fall. It would impose term limits on elected school board members, elevate the importance of civic literacy and allow entities other than school boards to “operate, control, and supervise” public schools.

That third part has drawn the most attention from critics. And it’s the focus of the lawsuit, filed this morning in Leon County court.

Florida is somewhat unique compared to other states. Its constitution creates 67 countywide school boards. Courts have held that, with certain, narrow exceptions, those countywide school boards have the exclusive power over public schools. That means statewide charter school authorizing boards, like the one that exists in Massachusetts, are unconstitutional.

The proposed amendment, drafted by the Constitution Revision Commission, would change that by adding the underlined words to the state constitution.

(b) The school board shall operate, control, and supervise all free public schools established by the district school board within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein. Two or more school districts may operate and finance joint educational programs.

A proposed ballot summary, intended to explain the change to voters when they go to the polls in November, describes the change this way:

The amendment maintains a school board’s duties to public schools it establishes, but permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.

The lawsuit argues the proposed summary is misleading because it says the change would allow “the state” to operate and control public schools — by, for example, creating a charter school board similar to the one in Massachusetts. (Courts blocked previous attempts to create a similar board in Florida.)

However, the lawsuit contends that removing local school boards’ exclusive control over public schools would open up avenues for entities other than “the state” to oversee public schools. For example, a handful of states allow nonprofit organizations to authorize charter schools. That would be allowed under Amendment 8, if the Legislature chose to enable it.

The legal complaint argues:

The text of Revision 8 provides only that district school boards will not have the authority to operate, control, and supervise public schools they do not establish. The revisiontext is silent on who or what will have such authority.

It is clear from the text of Revision 8 as well as the discussion and debate of the CRC that, should Revision 8 pass, it will be an open question as to who or what may be assigned the authority to authorize, operate, control, and supervise certain newly created charter schools and potentially other unspecified new public schools. According to the sponsor of the revision, examples of entities to whom this power may be given include a non-profit entity, a state university, a state board of education, a local school district, or a charter board.

By only telling voters that “the state” is permitted to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the elected district school boards, the ballot summary affirmatively misleads voters regarding the purpose and effect of the revision.

“Voters will not recognize that the real purpose of the amendment is to allow unaccountable political appointees to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” Patricia M. Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a statement. “We know that Floridians overwhelmingly support the constitutional requirement to make adequate provision for the education of all children that is ‘uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality.’ We are asking the court to ensure that voters aren’t tricked into eliminating those protections.”

The legal team working on the case includes Ron Meyer, who has spearheaded previous lawsuits dealing with the constitutional provisions Amendment 8 would revise, and three attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If the lawsuit succeeds, Florida law gives the state attorney general 10 days to revise the proposed ballot summary so it passes legal muster.

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