Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Rejecting arguments of numerous school boards across the state, an appeals court Thursday upheld the constitutionality of a controversial 2017 law that sought to bolster charter schools.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal backed a decision by a Leon County circuit judge, who turned down arguments that the mammoth education law improperly infringed on the rights of school boards to operate their districts.
The law, known in education circles by the shorthand HB 7069, was a priority of then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who now serves as state education commissioner. Corcoran and other school-choice supporters used the measure to try to direct additional money to charter schools and to authorize “schools of hope,” a new type of charter school aimed at areas where children have been served by low-performing traditional public schools.
School boards challenged the constitutionality of the law in two lawsuits, which were consolidated into one case. They argued the law gave too much power to the state and violated part of the Florida Constitution about local operation of schools.
But Thursday’s 22-page ruling said school boards did not have legal standing to challenge some parts of the law, including the part establishing schools of hope. It cited court precedents and a legal doctrine that effectively limits the ability of public officials to challenge the constitutionality of state laws.
“The school boards’ constitutional challenge to HB 7069’s provisions represents their disagreement with new statutory duties enacted by the Legislature,” said the ruling, written by Judge Joseph Lewis and joined by judges Timothy Osterhaus and M. Kemmerly Thomas. “As the foregoing authority makes clear, however, the school boards must presume that the provisions at issue are constitutional.”
The ruling said the school boards had legal standing to challenge two parts of the law — but it rejected the boards’ claims that those parts were unconstitutional.
Those issues dealt with a move by the Legislature to provide more building funds and federal Title I money to charter schools. The building funds involved money raised through local property taxes for capital-improvement projects, while the Title I program provides money to schools that serve large numbers of low-income students.
In a brief filed last year, attorneys for 10 school boards said the parts of the law dealing with building funds and Title I money “remove significant spending decisions from local school boards.”
“A school board that cannot determine how to best spend its tax revenues no longer has the power to operate, control, and supervise its schools,” said the brief, filed on behalf of the school boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.
But the appeals court, in upholding last year’s decision by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, pointed, in part, to a constitutional requirement that the state make “adequate provision” for public schools. Charter schools are public schools, though they are typically run by private operators.
“While charter schools are statutorily considered to be public schools, the reality is that they do compete with the traditional public schools in their districts. … Given such, the state’s constitutional duty to make adequate provision for Florida’s public schools must be interpreted to mean that the state has a duty to ensure that charter schools are not neglected by the school boards,” Lewis wrote in part of the ruling dealing with the building funds. “By requiring that charter schools receive a certain portion of capital millage funds, the state is not violating” the Constitution and is carrying out the purpose of the adequate-provision requirement.
Similarly, the appeals court pointed to the adequate-provision issue in upholding the part of the law dealing with Title I money.
“The school boards contend that prior to the enactment of HB 7069, they could use a portion of the Title I funds to fund district-wide programs, such as summer school, after-hours programs, district-wide science and technology initiatives, or a transportation system to ensure that low-income students could take advantage of the programs,” the ruling said. “They claim that the foregoing provision (in the law) unconstitutionally divested them of their right to decide how to spend federal Title I funds. In rejecting this claim, the trial court correctly recognized that the school boards do not have any constitutional right to federal Title I funds. Moreover, as is the case with capital millage, we find that the Title I issue is governed by the state’s constitutional authority … to ensure the adequate provision of education for all children in Florida. Ensuring that students in charter schools receive the federal funds that they are entitled to without relying upon the school boards’ discretion on how to allocate those funds does not violate Florida’s Constitution.”
The 10 school boards were plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, while the Collier County School Board filed the other.