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Fla. justices to rule on school funding lawsuit

BILL KACZOR, Associated Press
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Shannon Woisnet, 7-years-old, from Cleveland, Ohio,  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Shannon Woisnet, 7-years-old, from Cleveland, Ohio, (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A sharply divided appellate court on Wednesday rejected a request from state officials to block a lawsuit alleging public school funding and policies fail to meet quality requirements set by the Florida Constitution.

The 1st District Court of appeal, in a rare ruling by all 15 judges, also asked the Florida Supreme Court to decide if the constitution provides sufficient standards for a court to decide those issues and provide relief.

The majority certified that question as a matter of “great public importance.”

The 8-7 ruling came in a lawsuit by four parents or guardians and two students from Duval and Pasco counties as well as two advocacy groups: Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now.

Former House Speaker Jon Mills, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, was pleased although it was a close call.

“As I think some football coaches say, it’s still a win,” Mills said. “It needs to get to the Supreme Court and that’s good.”

Mills was optimistic the justices will take the case.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Spokeswomen for Attorney General Pam Bondi , Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon said their offices were reviewing the decision.

The lawsuit claims the state hasn’t lived up to a constitutional requirement for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”

Besides funding cuts in recent years, the suit cites underpaid and under-qualified teachers, elimination of funding for a seventh period and summer school, violence on school grounds, low graduation rates and testing requirements that allegedly have reduced quality.

Cannon, Haridopolos, the State Board of Education and former Education Commissioner Eric Smith asked the appellate court for a “writ of prohibition” that would have blocked further legal proceedings after a Tallahassee trial judge refused to dismiss the case.

They argued no court has the authority to order the Legislature to spend more on schools.

That argument is premature and can be made on appeal “if and when they suffer an adverse judgment.” Chief District Judge Robert T. Benton II wrote for the majority.

“The defendants here are seeking to derail proceedings in the trial court before they can conclude there,” Benton wrote.

He also noted the Supreme Court has said such extraordinary writs should be issued only in “emergencies.”

In dissent, Judge L. Clayton Roberts, cited a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the dismissal of a similar lawsuit by 44 of the state’s 67 school districts against then-Gov. Lawton Chiles and Legislature. The justices said the constitution as then written lacked sufficient standards to judge whether the state had complied with the requirement for an “adequate and uniform” system of free public schools.

Roberts also wrote that the issue is “quintessentially political” and, therefore, cannot be decided by the courts.

Mills, though, noted that now-retired Justice Ben Overton, who cast the deciding vote in the 4-3 ruling in 1996, wrote he might have allowed a lawsuit if it made more specific allegations such as a school district with a 30 percent illiteracy rate.

“Even under the previous constitutional provision, if the facts are bad enough the courts should review it,” Mills said.

In response to that ruling voters in 1998 adopted an amendment strengthening the education provision by making it “a fundamental value” of Florida’s people.

It also says the state has the “paramount duty” to provide an adequate education for its children and added the words “efficient, safe, secure and high quality” to the description of what’s expected from the school system. Benton noted the Supreme Court in 2006 characterized the new amendment as providing measurement standards it had found lacking a decade earlier.

The high court made that observation in an opinion striking down then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s school voucher program that let students from failing public schools attend private schools at public expense.

District Judge James R. Wolf cast the deciding vote Wednesday. In a specially concurring opinion, Wolf wrote that the allegations in the lawsuit, if true, “indicate a clear failure of the Legislature” to assure the constitution’s values are being met.

Also, the lawsuit requests a “remedial plan” that would in effect be implementing legislation, Wolf wrote. He noted the Supreme Court in a 1972 decision said the courts could decree guidelines for the implementation of constitutional amendments if the Legislature failed to do so by law.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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