Members of ’98 Constitution Revision Commission file briefs supporting state’s position in adequacy lawsuit

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A group of appointed members from a 1998 Constitution Revision Commission filed a legal brief Tuesday arguing the state has fully complied with a constitutional mandate, proposed by the commission and approved by voters that year, requiring Florida public schools to be “high quality” and adequately funded.

The CRC contingent was among five different groups that filed amicus briefs supporting the state’s position in the highly charged adequacy lawsuit, and its legal argument was notably at odds with that of a separate group of appointment members who weighed in earlier in July.

The adequacy suit, first in 2009 by a Gainesville-based organization known as Citizens for Strong Schools, argues Florida’s public schools are under-funded and hamstrung by policies like standardized testing. At the heart of the legal battle is the so-called “adequacy” provision enacted in 1998.

The five groups filing friend of the court briefs on Tuesday all argued in support of the State Board of Education’s position in the “adequacy lawsuit.” They asked the Florida Supreme Court to uphold the judgment of the First District Court of Appeal, which dismissed the constitutional claims and argued that the court was being asked instead to determine “political questions” that were beyond its legal authority.

The other briefs were filed by EdChoice, the Urban League of Greater Miami, the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Miami, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education a think tank on education reform founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The CRC filing came from six Republican members: Carlos Alfonso, Chris Corr, Valerie Evans, Paul Hawkes, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Sen. Jim Scott. They argued that “parents, students, local school boards, and school officials, as well as justices, are each likely to have a different opinion on what is high quality or efficient.” As a result, they said it is impossible for the courts to define what is high-quality or efficient.

They also argued that asking for judicial review of the legislative action executing the 1998 Amendment and seeking judicial interpretation of the standards for Florida’s public education system would “inappropriately inject this court into policy issues.” Further, they wrote that: “As individual framers of the 1998 amendments, commissioners’ legal analysis should not be utilized for determining the intent of the CRC.”

In 2014, the scope of the case widened considerably, and the plaintiffs took aim at several school choice programs. Both the trial and appellate court, however, held that school choice programs — including charter schools and the McKay Scholarship program for children with special needs — don’t harm public education, and may help. And last year, the Supreme Court declined to re-examine an appeals court’s decision that the statewide teachers union lacked legal standing to challenge Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarships.)

Two school choice organizations argued on behalf of the legitimacy of school choice programs and their positive contributions to public education.

In its filing, EdChoice argued the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is not funded by any “disbursement of funds from the state treasury.”

“Petitioners falsely impugn educational choice programs, which exist not to benefit private schools but to improve the educational experience of participating students and to improve public school quality,” the brief states.

The Urban League brief disputed claims that Florida was failing to provide adequate education, citing examples of significant improvements in schools that previously struggled. The league, a nonprofit community service organization in Miami-Dade, noted that Miami-Dade received an “A” for the first time in the history of Florida school grades and wrote that “on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Programs, Trial Urban District Assessment reading and mathematics assessment, it outperformed many of its national counterparts.”

The Foundation For Excellence in Education brief said that student achievement is increasing at  a “faster rate than any other state,” which has resulted in “putting Florida near the top nationwide in important metrics such as Grade 4 student performance.”

The Foundation also drew a comparison between Florida and New York, where courts intervened in the education system. “Yet, despite the intervention of the New York courts, Florida outperforms New York on almost every metric, according to the NAEP,” the brief states.

Citizens for Strong Schools has asked for oral arguments to be heard in the case.