By Jim Saunders and Tom Urban, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE – Appearing skeptical of arguments made by school boards, an appeals court Tuesday waded into a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2017 state law that seeks to boost charter schools.
Numerous school boards across the state filed two lawsuits contending that the law infringed on their rights to operate school districts. One of the major issues in the case is the law’s authorization of “schools of hope,” a new type of charter school aimed at areas where children have been served by traditional public schools that are low performing.
Steven Brannock, an attorney who argued for the school boards during the hearing at the 1st District Court of Appeal, argued that the law gave too much power to the state and violates part of the Florida Constitution about local operation of schools.
“If the school boards aren’t doing their jobs, then the local voters can vote them out and bring in new school board members who will do the job more effectively,” Brannock said after the hearing. “The question is whether it is going to be state bureaucrats in Tallahassee (who) are going to make that call, or is it going to be the local voters.”
But Rocco Testani, an attorney for the Florida Department of Education, disputed that the law violates the Constitution and said the state has a role in improving the education of children who are in low-performing traditional public schools.
“Enough is enough,” Testani said. “You (school districts) have been given years to turn these schools around. You have been given the first chance to do that, and you haven’t.”
The case focuses on a mammoth education measure, commonly known as HB 7069, that then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran pushed through during the 2017 legislative session. The bill included a variety of education changes, but the challenge focuses on pieces dealing with charter schools, which are public schools that are typically run by private organizations.
Along with setting the stage for schools of hope, the law also dealt with issues such as charter schools receiving local tax dollars for capital improvements and federal Title I funds, which are designed to help schools that serve large numbers of low-income students. Corcoran, a leading school-choice supporter, is now the state education commissioner.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper last year rejected arguments that the law is unconstitutional, spurring the school boards to take the case to the Tallahassee-based appeals court. The two lawsuits have been consolidated into one case.
Members of a three-judge panel of the appeals court, as is common, did not say Tuesday how they would rule. But in questioning attorneys for both sides, they appeared skeptical of many of the arguments raised by the school boards.
In part, they repeatedly questioned whether the school boards had legal “standing” to challenge parts of the law. Also, for example, Judge Timothy Osterhaus pointed to the state’s responsibility for educating children in low-performing public schools.
Brannock said the state has a responsibility to set up and adequately fund the public-education system but that it can’t “muscle the local school boards out of the way” and make decisions for districts.
But Testani said the school boards are simply arguing that they should be “left alone.”
“There’s no issue about an inability to perform their duties at all. What they are saying is, ‘You can’t get into our business, leave us alone,’ Testani said. “So, it is not a prevention of performance of duty at all. They are just saying, ‘We don’t think you should be able to supervise or operation.’