Justices turn down challenge to education law

Passage of HB 7069, characterized by school boards as an unconstitutional infringement on their rights to operate public schools, was a priority of then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE – Nearly three years after lawmakers passed a controversial measure that sought to bolster charter schools, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down a constitutional challenge by county school boards.

The Supreme Court, as is common, did not explain its unanimous decision to decline to take up the case. But the decision effectively let stand an August ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal and was a victory for the Florida Department of Education and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

School boards argued that the mammoth law, known in education circles by the shorthand HB 7069, was an unconstitutional infringement on their rights to operate public schools. Passage of the law in May 2017 was a priority of then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who is now the 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.

In a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, attorneys for nine school boards argued that disputed parts of the law “unconstitutionally transfer control over operational decisions from local school boards to unelected Florida state employees” at the Department of Education. Also, they argued the law creates a “parallel system of public schools.”

As examples, the school boards pointed to parts of the law designed 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.

The nine school boards who appealed to the Supreme Court were from Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.

“On the merits, this case concerns the constitutional balance between the state’s duty to provide for and supervise the system of public education and local school boards’ constitutional duty to operate, control, and supervise local schools,” the school boards’ brief, filed in October, said. “The First District ignored this balance, giving the state carte blanche to regulate what were previously considered local matters.”

But Department of Education attorneys, in a November brief, said the 1st District Court of Appeal had ruled correctly on the issues and that the Supreme Court should not hear the case.

“(The) First District’s decision applied existing decisions interpreting decades-old constitutional provisions,” the department’s attorneys wrote. “Petitioners disagree with those decisions and want this (Supreme) Court to ‘examine’ the interplay between those provisions. But those provisions have been considered, and harmonized, by this court and the district courts, and will continue to be. This court should reject petitioners’ invitation to contemplate a non-existent conflict.”

The Tallahassee-based appeals court rejected the arguments about the property-tax money and Title I funds. It also said school boards did not have legal standing to challenge other 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,” the appeals-court ruling said. “As the foregoing authority makes clear, however, the school boards must presume that the provisions at issue are constitutional.”

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BY Special to NextSteps