TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The fate of Florida's public schools could soon be decided at a landmark trial.
After three years of legal wrangling, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to block a lawsuit that accuses the state of shortchanging Florida's public schools.
This means that lawyers for Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature will now have to defend the amount of money that goes into public school classrooms and the state's high-stakes system of testing.
"We will now have a real live conversation about the quality of Florida's education system," said former House Speaker Jon Mills, one of the lawyers representing the groups bringing the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, first filed in 2009, 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 cited 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.
The lawsuit was brought against the Legislature 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.
The initial legal clash has been over whether a court could even determine if the state's system of schools lives up to what's called for in the constitution. Lawyers for the Legislature had argued that no court has the authority to order legislators how much to spend on schools.
But a Leon County judge refused to throw out the initial lawsuit. That decision was upheld by a sharply divided appellate court.
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 appeals decision was decided by an 8-7 vote.
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 the 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.
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.
The state constitution also now 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.
A Supreme Court decision in 2006 characterized the new amendment as providing measurement standards it had found lacking a decade earlier.
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