TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With school choice a hot-button issue in Florida, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday plunged into a debate about whether voters should cast ballots in November on a proposed constitutional amendment that could help lead to more charter schools.
Justices peppered attorneys on both sides of the issue with questions about whether the proposal, placed on the ballot by the state Constitution Revision Commission, would be misleading to voters. The League of Women Voters of Florida has challenged the proposal, contending it should be blocked from moving forward.
Ron Meyer, an attorney for the League of Women Voters, said people would be “fooled” by the ballot title and summary --- the part of the proposal voters would see when they go to the polls.
“Our problem is that the voter presenting at the voting booth is not being told what’s happening here, is not being given an explanatory purpose,” Meyer said.
But state Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Bell disputed that the ballot title and summary would be misleading to voters.
“The only question before this court today is whether the ballot language at issue accurately and clearly discloses the chief purpose of the amendment … and we would submit that it does,” Bell said.
The state appealed after Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled last month that the proposed constitutional amendment should be knocked off the ballot. In part pointing to the failure to use the term “charter schools,” Cooper wrote that the proposal “fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal.”
The Supreme Court quickly took up the issue as elections officials prepare to start sending out general-election ballots to voters this month. With justices away from Tallahassee because of an educational seminar for judges, the court took the unusual step Wednesday of hearing arguments in a courtroom in West Palm Beach.
The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has unique powers to place proposed constitutional changes on the ballot. But the education amendment comes amid heavy debate in the state about expansion of charter schools and voucher-like programs that supporters say give students more educational choices
The proposed amendment, which would appear on the ballot as Amendment 8, would impose eight-year term limits on school board members and would require the promotion of “civic literacy” in public schools.
But a third provision that drew the legal challenge from the League of Women Voters of Florida would allow the state to “operate, control and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”
County school boards and charter-school operators have repeatedly battled in recent years about whether new charter schools should be allowed. While the proposed constitutional wording does not specifically mention charter schools, it could open the door to the state allowing charter schools outside of the control of local school boards. Charter schools are public schools but are typically operated by private entities.
The Supreme Court, as is customary, did not indicate Wednesday how it would rule. But justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince asked questions that appeared clearly skeptical of the state’s arguments.
“My problem with this, and it was I think what the circuit court zeroed in on, is whether the ballot title and summary establishes the … true meaning of the amendment,” Pariente said. “It is pretty clear from looking at the briefs that the true purpose was to take away responsibilities from the school boards and transfer it to either the Legislature, the state, to a private commission.”
Justices are only supposed to determine whether the ballot title and summary would provide an accurate description of the proposed constitutional amendment to voters. They are not supposed to weigh the underlying merits of the amendment.
Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Alan Lawson took issue with the League of Women Voters’ arguments, with Canady suggesting that the group is opposed to the merits of the amendment --- not the ballot title and summary.
“I understand you’ve got a problem with the proposal. I accept that, and I understand the policy reasons that people would have a problem with the proposal. … But that’s not a reason to keep the people of Florida from having an opportunity to vote on this,” Canady said to Meyer at one point.