By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — More than 18 months after legislators passed a controversial education law pushed by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, attorneys for the state and 11 county school boards are continuing to battle in court about whether the measure violates the Florida Constitution.
Attorneys for the state this week filed a 100-page document at the 1st District Court of Appeal disputing the school boards’ arguments that the measure — known in the education world by the shorthand “HB 7069” — is unconstitutional because it intrudes on the decision-making powers of local school districts and creates a public-school system that is not uniform.
The battle focuses on parts of the mammoth bill that are designed to boost charter schools, including creation of what were dubbed “schools of hope.”
The state’s lawyers wrote this week that the school boards’ arguments about intruding on local powers “neglect the importance of the state’s constitutional authority to provide for and supervise Florida’s statewide system of free public schools.”
“Given the state’s express constitutional authority and lengthy history of involvement in Florida’s statewide system of public schools and education finance — over decades involving the distribution of billions of dollars for millions of students — none of the statutes challenged here improperly limit the local boards’ authority or implicate the overall uniformity of Florida’s public schools,” said the document filed by lawyers in Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office and the state Department of Education.
But attorneys for the school districts, in briefs filed Oct. 31, offered a different picture.
“At issue here is vindication of the school boards’ power to operate, control, and supervise all local public schools, including charter schools,” said a brief filed on behalf of 10 of the school boards. “The challenged provisions intrude on that local control because they sharply restrict the ability of school boards to make discretionary spending decisions and to make the other operational decisions necessary to supervise all the public schools in their districts.”
HB 7069, short for House Bill 7069, was approved by the Legislature in May 2017 and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott a month later. The measure, which Corcoran made a priority, was one of the most-controversial education bills to emerge from the Legislature in years and drew legal challenges later in 2017.
Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who stepped down as speaker last week, is a major supporter of school-choice programs, including charter schools. HB 7069 also came amid a backdrop of clashes between some county school boards and charter-school operators about whether charter schools should be allowed to open. Charter schools are public schools, but they are typically operated by private entities.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper upheld HB 7069 this spring, spurring the school boards to take the debate to the 1st District Court of Appeal. The case involves two appeals, which have been consolidated. One of the appeals was filed by the Collier County School Board, while the other was filed by school boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.
The appeals deal with a series of provisions related to charter schools, with perhaps the most controversial issue involving the creation of charter schools known as “schools of hope.” Under that part of the bill, non-profit charter operators can open schools of hope to serve children who otherwise would attend low-performing traditional public schools.
Other types of charter schools need to get approvals from county school boards, but the appeals argue that HB 7069 has largely taken away local authority over schools of hope. Also, the school boards contend that HB 7069 violates part of the state Constitution that requires uniformity in the public-school system, in part because schools of hope are exempted from requirements imposed on traditional public schools, such as teacher-certification requirements.
“This uniformity requirement has existed in every (Florida) constitution since 1868,” the Collier County School Board’s attorneys wrote in an Oct. 31 brief. “But (the schools of hope section of the law) diverts public funds away from the existing uniform public education system that school boards run and that are bound by the same standards. It then directs those funds to a competing system of ‘schools of hope’ that nonprofits run without local control or oversight and without having to follow the same standards as district schools.”
But attorneys for the state this week rejected such arguments, pointing in part to the fact that schools of hope are public charter schools.
“And regardless of the additional flexibility afforded to hope operators with respect to certain technical requirements like teacher certification, schools of hope must still comply with state laws regarding the student-assessment program and school-grading system; student progression and graduation; the provision of services to students with disabilities; civil rights, student health, safety, and welfare; public meetings and records; and the code of ethics for public officers and employees,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “Any claim that schools of hope would violate the uniformity requirement … therefore fails as a matter of law.”