Florida Supreme Court ruling is bad news for charter schools

A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school.
A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school. Tampa Bay Times file

The state Supreme Court charged into Florida’s long-running battle over school choice Friday by removing a ballot measure that would have wrested control of charter schools from local districts and given it to the state.

In a narrowly divided 4-3 decision, justices upheld the decision by a lower court that Amendment 8, scheduled to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, misled voters by not clearly stating its true purpose and never mentioning charter schools by name.

The Republican-controlled state government has generally been more receptive to charter schools than local school boards, and this proposal would have helped expand the amount of public dollars steered to privately managed charter schools, critics of the ballot measure had argued.

The court’s ruling is final, allowing elections supervisors across Florida to complete their Nov. 6 ballots almost immediately so that they can be mailed to registered voter living overseas.

Plaintiff Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, celebrated the result.

“That is indeed fantastic news,” Brigham said. “It is truly a victory for Floridians. The court saw right through what the [Constitution Revision Commission] was doing with that very vague language.”

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The League is a vocal critic of Florida’s expansion of charter schools, which are paid for with taxpayer money but operated by private groups. Along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the League challenged Amendment 8 by arguing the proposal’s ballot title and summary hid the purpose of the measure: to fuel the expansion of charter schools by easing oversight.

Rather than mention “charter schools” in either its title or ballot summary, the measure states that its purpose “permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”

“This decision upholds prior law guaranteeing that if voters are asked to make significant changes to the state’s Constitution, they are given fair notice of those changes so that they can make informed decisions at the ballot box,” added Zoe Savitsky, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the proposed amendment both, “a process problem and an issue conflation problem.”

“I think that, as is often the case, the treating of distinct concepts as one in this case caused both confusion and consternation,” he said. “And despite the original intent behind the language, process flaws and issue conflation legally undermine the amendment and ended up depriving the people from their ability of opining on any one of the three issues.”

Carvalho added, “I believe in the constitutional authority of local government to opine on these matters under a unified system of education that provides for both equity and fairness for all kids.”

Broward County School Board chairwoman Nora Rupert was thrilled that the court “didn’t fall for it.”

“They were all basically hiding the intended purpose [which] was to create another pathway for charter schools to flourish,” she said, explaining that while many charters in Broward cooperate with the district, others “go off the rails.”

“This would’ve made it so much worse,” she said. “I’m thrilled it keeps our local control where it needs to be.”

Erika Donalds, the measure’s sponsor, criticized “activist judges” for the decision.

“The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center were so busy protecting a system — protecting power and control — that they lost sight of the children, and the families who desire and deserve great public school options,” Donalds said in a released statement. “We know that choice, competition, and innovation are the avenues to continuous improvement for our education system. The education monopoly will not reform itself or welcome needed competition without policy changes.”

Donalds, who is a school board member in Naples and is married to a Republican state lawmaker, pledged to continue fighting for more pathways to provide school choice to families.

Friday was a busy day for judicial decisions on some of Florida’s many proposed constitutional amendments. The Supreme Court also ordered that three other amendments stay on the ballot after facing separate challenges. Additionally, the attorney general’s office indicated on Friday it would appeal three other amendments struck from the ballot by a Leon County Circuit judge earlier this week.

During Wednesday’s oral arguments on Amendment 8, two justices — Charles Canady and Al Lawson — repeatedly suggested that the language before voters was clear in intent.

“I’m struggling to understand why they aren’t going to get the main point here,” Chief Justice Canady said at one point during questioning of Ron Meyer, the lawyer representing the League of Women Voters.

Four others on the court, who made up the majority striking the amendment, signaled during questioning that they saw logic in the League’s arguments.

If the objective is to let the voters know what they’re voting on, Justice Jorge Labarga said to deputy solicitor general Daniel Bell, “Why not just come out and say it?”

Amendment 8 also pitched to impose school board term limits and enshrine civics education in the Constitution. During debate among Florida Constitution Revision Commission members, concerns arose that the public school authorizer section should stand separately from the others because it could dramatically alter public education in the state.

A majority on the commission decided to tie the three together under the education umbrella, suggesting it would help stave off voter fatigue at the end of an already lengthy ballot. Some commissioners stated that the term limits and civics items might even help the authorizer piece win approval.

“The Supreme Court has once again affirmed that a sponsor of a revision to the Constitution must be clear in explaining what it will do,” Meyer said Friday. “Here, voters were being asked to make a major change in the structure of public education without being fairly informed of the breadth of this change. We are obviously pleased with the outcome.”

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri