Is a six-period high school day an offense to the Constitution?

Two years have passed since a coalition of public school supporters asked Florida courts to improve the quality of classroom education, and a divided 8-7 First District Court of Appeal ruling last week reminds us how messy these things can be. The merits of the case have not even been debated yet in the lower courts, and the appellate court has now asked the state Supreme Court to decide a procedural question as a matter of “great public importance.”

That question – whether the courts have the power to tell an elected Legislature how to run the school system – is procedural at this point because the court is being asked to take a position before depositions and fact-finding. But it is hard to miss the court’s ample citations to a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling that is directly on point. In that case, the high court rejected a similar plea for more education funding by writing that: “We hold that the legislature has been vested with enormous discretion by the Florida Constitution to determine what provision to make for an adequate and uniform system of free public schools.” This time, the court rejected a plea to immediately end the case, but added that “we are uncertain as to whether — and do not decide that — the trial court has any ability to grant relief.”

The 1996 high court ruling, of course, led to a movement to upgrade the constitutional language on adequate and high quality public education, which voters then ratified in 1998. And those new passages certainly raise the stakes in the current constitutional battle. That said, it is hard not to feel a little déjà vu. In 1995, with Democratic governor Lawton Chiles in charge, the plaintiffs included School Board members who argued the state was tying their hands with regulation and shortchanging schools in financial support. Fast forward to 2009, when Republican governor Charlie Crist was still in office, and the new coalition made almost precisely the arguments with almost precisely the same flair for drama.

The point is that educational matters, for better or worse, are inherently political and not necessarily partisan. The latter is best illustrated by the fact that these Florida legal attempts have persisted for decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations and in lean and fat economic times. Educators and parents understandably want more for their schoolchildren, but more is easier to demand than it is to define. Courts are right to be wary about substituting their judgment for that of elected policymakers.

The other point here goes to relevance. These constitutional fights over “adequacy” and “quality” tend to be steeped in age-old education traditions where success is often defined by monetary effort and per-pupil spending rankings and where the court is asked to referee policy quarrels or perceived slights to the natural order of daily classroom businesses. In that way, they feel like an anachronism, where one of the most jarring requests is for a court to decide that education must be dispensed with what the lawyers call “uniformity.” As interpreted most recently by the high court, that edict could bring an end to special magnet programs, online learning, dual college enrollment, charter schools — any education that attempts to be different from a “uniform” method.

The formal allegations in the current lawsuit, despite their sincerity, sound entirely too much like more of the same. Among the points alleged in the original complaint, for example, are: 1) “Florida uses the FCAT … to deny students a high school diploma;” 2) “Florida’s current accountability policy is an obstacle to high quality;” and 3) “The state education budget in recent years … eliminated funding for a seventh period.”

This case is only in the early innings, and it already seems strangely disconnected from a modern public education system that is rapidly evolving and increasingly defined by its ability to find new ways to tailor learning. Is it really constitutionally relevant whether a high school offers six or seven daily periods of instruction?

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.