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Court Rejects Challenge To Florida's Education System

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Saying it's not the role of judges to determine education policy, an appeals court Wednesday rejected a long-running lawsuit that alleged Florida has failed to meet its constitutional duty of providing a high-quality system of public schools.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal issued a strongly worded 23-page ruling that upheld a decision last year by a Leon County circuit judge.

In part, Wednesday's ruling said arguments about the state failing to adequately provide for public schools “raise political questions not subject to judicial review.”

“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,” said the ruling, written by Chief Judge Brad Thomas and joined by judges Thomas Winokur and James Wolf. “There is no language or authority in (the Constitution's) 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 lawsuit, led by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools, is rooted in a 1998 constitutional amendment that says it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.

Citizens for Strong Schools and its supporters argue that Florida has not complied and, in part, have pointed to issues such as many students being unable to read at grade level. The lawsuit contended that courts should require the state to take steps to carry out the constitutional amendment.

But Thomas wrote in Wednesday's ruling that agreeing with that position would “entangle courts in the details and execution of educational policies and related appropriations, involving millions of students and billions of dollars, in an arena in which the courts possess no special competence or specific constitutional authority.”

“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 25 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,” Thomas wrote. “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.”

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