Miami-Dade joined a growing number of school districts challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s sweeping new education law.
At a School Board meeting on Wednesday, board members voted 8 to 1 to join litigation seeking to overturn portions of a bill some critics say was designed to boost the fortunes of the politically powerful charter school industry. One provision forces school districts to share with charter schools local tax dollars earmarked for school construction and maintenance and others limit the board’s authority over charter schools.
“We’ve got to have the courage to do what is right,” said Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, a member of the board that oversees Florida’s largest public school system. “We’ve got to do the right thing and the right thing would be to have courage to fight for the children who cannot fight for themselves.”
Miami-Dade is one of seven districts to pledge to join a lawsuit so far — but none has yet actually filed one to challenge what’s known as House Bill 7069. In early July, Broward County schools became the first, followed by St. Lucie, Volusia, Lee, and Bay school districts. Palm Beach also voted to authorize joining a suit on Wednesday.
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In total, including a $30,000 commitment from Miami-Dade, the districts have set aside just $150,000 for a potential legal challenge. That’s a modest amount for what could be a major political and legal battle, pitting the authority of local school districts against the power of Florida lawmakers to set education policy.
While the board approved a potential suit, it also sent a signal that Miami-Dade would prefer not taking legal action. Members agreed to send a letter asking state leaders for a special legislative session to discuss the law’s impacts on school boards before joining any formal legal challenge.
Other counties also may soon join the opposition. At least 10 additional districts are still considering a lawsuit, according to a query by the Herald/Times of the state’s 67 school districts in late July. It’s unclear who would file the suit, although Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho indicated at Wednesday’s meeting that the districts were leaning toward agreeing on a single lawsuit and filing jointly.
The suit is the latest development in a bitter fight over the education law, which has sparked controversy since it was passed during the final days of the 2017 legislative session. School administrators, teachers’ unions and parent groups unsuccessfully urged Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill, arguing that many of the provisions favored charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools.
One of the chief complaints is that the provision mandating the sharing of taxpayer-funded construction dollars with charter schools will cost school districts millions. Miami-Dade will have to share as much as $23.2 million during the 2017-2018 school year, according to data compiled by the Florida House. Over five years, the district predicts it will lose $250 million to charter schools.
But there are other aspects of the bill, such as daily recess for most elementary school students, that Miami-Dade agrees with. The proposed suit will only focus on a handful of provisions the district argues violate the state constitution.
Board members said their decision was not intended as a statement against charter schools.
“This school board has been at the forefront of the school choice and charter school movement,” said board member Maria Teresa “Mari Tere” Rojas. “I want to make sure that everyone listening understands that this board is extremely supportive of all types of school choice options.”
For many school choice proponents, however, the new law provides what they have long argued is necessary financial support to help build and maintain charter schools.
“We respect the right of a district to fight any legislation that they feel is unconstitutional,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “What’s important to remember about capital outlay distribution is that students who have chosen to attend a public charter school are public school students. Their parents are taxpayers and those students deserve equitable funding.”
Some Florida school districts have said they do not plan to challenge the law. Sarasota is the first and only school board so far to vote against joining the suit, but at least nine districts either will not sue or have expressed no interest in doing so, according to the Herald/Times query.
For the districts that have decided to pursue a legal challenge, there are still obstacles.
The money pledged so far is only half of the estimated maximum cost for the suit, according to a rough estimate given by Anthony Carriuolo, a lawyer with Berger Singerman, one of three law firms hired by Miami-Dade schools to research the constitutionality of HB 7069. At a July workshop to discuss Miami-Dade’s legal options, Carriuolo said the suit would likely cost between $100,000 and $300,000.
Miami-Dade School Board member Perla Tabares Hantman, who opposes the decision to sue but supports sending a letter asking for a special session, said she was concerned about the price tag in a year of budget constraints, as well as the possibility that state legislators would retaliate against the school district.
“I am concerned that joining any type of litigation at this time will not only shift our focus from moving our school district forward, but will also cause a strain on the relationship with state lawmakers,” Tabares Hantman said.
The item Miami-Dade passed on Wednesday calls for exploring and exhausting “all elements of negotiation” in addition to authorizing a lawsuit.
The board also addressed concerns that the suit could take money from classrooms, agreeing to tap a settlement the district won in a lawsuit against oil giant BP or other similar sources. Members also made it clear that Miami-Dade would not act alone — at least not at this point. For that to happen, the School Board attorney would have to ask the board for authorization.
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Lighthouse Point who has been a vocal critic of the education law, applauded the efforts of the school districts that have voted to sue.
“I’m very pleased that so many districts have signed on,” Farmer told the Miami Herald. “The stakes couldn’t be higher. I really believe that if 7069 remains law in the state of Florida, it is the precursor to the demise of public education as we know it and it’s the first step to full privatization, which I think is their ultimate goal.”
But Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, a key supporter of the law, expressed dismay at Miami-Dade’s decision. “I just think it’s unfortunate they’ve spent any time or energy in the process of bringing litigation against their own constituents,” he said. “All the students who are benefiting from the law are their constituents, just like they are mine.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report
Update: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the School Board vote. The vote was initially recorded as unanimous, but board member Perla Tabares Hantman asked the board to correct the record at the end of the meeting to reflect that she intended to vote no.