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Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Florida State Board of Education

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

December 13, 2017

FLORIDA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION; ANDY GARDINER, in his official capacity as the Florida Senate President; STEVE CRISAFULLI, in his official capacity as the Florida Speaker of the House of Representatives; and PAM STEWART, in her official capacity as Florida Commissioner of Education, Appellees, and CELESTE JOHNSON; DEAUNDRICE KITCHEN; KENIA PALACIOS; MARGOT LOGAN; KAREN TOLBERT; and MARIAN KLINGER, Intervenors/Appellees.


         An appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. George S. Reynolds, Judge.

          Jodi Siegel and Kirsten Anderson of Southern Legal Counsel, Inc., Gainesville; Timothy McLendon, Gainesville; Deborah Cupples, Gainesville; Eric J. Lindstrom of Egan, Lev & Siwica, P.A., Gainesville; Neil Chonin, Gainesville, for Appellants.

          Robert M. Brochin and Clay M. Carlton of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Miami, for Amicus Curiae Certain Commissioners of 1998 Constitution Revision Commission.

          Dena H. Sokolow, Renee Meenach Decker and Angelica M. Fiorentino of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, Orlando, for Amicus Curiae National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Amicus Curiae Bassuk Center on Homeless and Vulnerable Children and Youth.

          Sarah R. Sullivan, Jacksonville, for Amicus Curiae Disability and Public Benefits Clinic, Florida Coastal School of Law.

          Kele Stewart, Coral Gables, for Amicus Curiae University of Miami School of Law Children Youth Law Clinic.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Jonathan A. Glogau, Chief, Complex Litigation, Tallahassee; Dawn Roberts, General Counsel, and Christie M. Letarte, Deputy General Counsel, The Florida Senate, Tallahassee; Adam S. Tanenbaum, General Counsel, Florida House of Representatives, Tallahassee, for the Florida House of Representatives and Steve Crisafulli in his official capacity as the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives; Judy Bone, General Counsel, Matthew H. Mears and Mari M. Presley, Assistant General Counsels, Department of Education, Tallahassee; Rocco E. Testani, Stacey M. Mohr and Lee A. Peifer of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, Atlanta, pro hac vice, for Appellees.

          George N. Meros, Jr., of GrayRobinson, P.A., Tallahassee; Carl Nichols, Daniel P. Kearney, Jr. and Kevin Gallagher of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae Foundation for Excellence in Education.

          Ari S. Bargil, Institute for Justice, Miami; Richard Komer, Institute for Justice, Arlington, VA, pro hac vice; and Timothy D. Keller, Institute for Justice, Tempe, AZ, pro hac vice, for Intervenors/Appellees Institute for Justice.

          B.L. THOMAS, C.J.

         Eight years ago, Appellants initiated a legal challenge to Florida's public school system, asserting that the State's entire K-12 public education system - which includes 67 school districts, approximately 2.7 million students, 170, 000 teachers, 150, 000 staff members, and 4, 000 schools - is in violation of the Florida Constitution. Appellants sued the Florida State Board of Education, the President of the Florida Senate, the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Commissioner of Education seeking a declaration that the State violated its "paramount duty" to provide a "uniform, efficient . . . and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education, " as required by Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution. Appellants sought declaratory and supplemental relief below, including: a demand that the State submit a remedial plan for the alleged constitutional deficiencies; a demand that relevant studies be conducted for necessary actions; and that the trial court retain jurisdiction to provide any further appropriate legal relief.

         We affirm the trial court's ruling denying relief on the basis that Appellants' arguments regarding the State's duty to make adequate provision for an efficient and high quality education raise political questions not subject to judicial review, because the relevant constitutional text does not contain judicially discoverable standards by which a court can decide whether the State has complied with organic law. Furthermore, the strict separation of powers embedded in Florida's organic law requires judicial deference to the legislative and executive branches to adopt and execute educational policies those branches deem necessary and appropriate to enable students to obtain a "high quality" education, as directed by the Florida Constitution. There is no language or authority in Article IX, section 1(a) that would empower judges to order the enactment of educational policies regarding teaching methods and accountability, the appropriate funding of public schools, the proper allowance of charter schools and school choice, the best methods of student accountability and school accountability, and related funding priorities.

         The most effective manner in which to teach students science, mathematics, history, language, culture, classics, economics, trade skills, poetry, literature and civic virtue have been debated since at least the time of ancient Greece. Brilliant philosophers, thinkers, writers, poets and teachers over the past twenty-five centuries have dedicated their talents to identifying the best means of providing a proper education to help each child reach his or her highest potential in a just society. In a republican form of government founded on democratic rule, it must be the elected representatives and executives who make the difficult and profound decisions regarding how our children are to be educated. Absent specific and clear direction to the contrary in the supreme organic law, which does not exist in Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution, we uphold the trial court's correct ruling that such decisions are not subject to judicial oversight or interference.

         We also affirm the trial court's ruling rejecting Appellant's arguments challenging the State's constitutional compliance with its duty to provide a "uniform" education. We agree that the John M. McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities - which affects only 30, 000 students and does not materially impact the K-12 public school system - provides a benefit to help disabled students obtain a high quality education. Thus, the McKay Scholarship Program does not violate Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution.

         Background and Procedural History

         In 2009, Appellants filed suit challenging the State's education policies as invalid under Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution. Appellees moved to dismiss, asserting in part that the allegations raised political questions not subject to judicial review, and the motion was denied. Appellees then sought a writ of prohibition in this court, asserting that the claims were not justiciable, as they raised political questions. Sitting en banc, this court voted 7-1-7 to deny the petition for writ of prohibition and allowed the litigation to continue in the trial court. Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Schools Inc., 81 So.3d 465, 467 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) (en banc). The en banc court certified as an issue of great public importance the following question:

Does Article IX, section 1(a), Florida Constitution, set forth judicially ascertainable standards that can be used to determine the adequacy, efficiency, safety, security, and high quality of public education on a statewide basis, so as to permit a court to decide claims for declaratory judgment (and supplemental relief) alleging noncompliance with Article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution?

Id. at 473. The dissenting judges would have granted the writ, based on the separation of powers requirement of Article II, section 3 of the Florida Constitution and the political question doctrine. Id. at 480-81 (Roberts, J., dissenting). The Florida Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction to consider the certified question. Haridopolos v. Citizens ...

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