Nov. 17, 2014 | Volume XXII, Issue 14

Reforming Florida’s schools

Published: April 18th, 2011

Category: Feature

Octavio Simoes-Ponce By Octavio Simoes-Ponce
Public Interest Law Fellow

Before starting my fellowship placement with Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), my concept of “constitutional law” was mostly a federal one. This was unfortunate because it ignored the alternatives state constitutions offer for enforcing rights sometimes not enshrined in the federal version. No case brought this fact home to me more than SLC’s ongoing case ofCitizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education.

Brought in 2009 on behalf of citizens, parents, and students, the case is a challenge to the current implementation of Florida’s public school system based on Article IX of the Florida Constitution.

The Article provides that:

“The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”

This is as opposed to the federal Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted to not enshrine education as a fundamental right.

The case makes comprehensive allegations that the state is failing to meet Article IX’s standards. As evidence, the complaint cites Florida’s abysmal performance in graduation and retention rates, the state’s shifting its funding responsibility to school districts, and the difficulty schools have hiring and retaining qualified teachers. Most recently, the case survived a motion to dismiss though it seems destined for Florida Supreme Court review.

Though this may seem like a novel claim, it is actually part of a nationwide trend of school system challenges in state courts. This has resulted in a confusing patchwork of outcomes. Some state courts have found school quality claims are non-justiciable under the political question doctrine. Others have found violations and ordered changes, with mixed results. Sadly, some state courts have identified violations while refusing to mandate changes. If Federal constitutional law has one thing over state variants, perhaps it is uniformity.

Helping SLC with this case as a Public Interest Law Fellow has given me the opportunity to grow both as a person and a legal advocate. Before this case, words like “millage” and “complex litigation” were legal concepts that meant little to me. By aiding SLC, I have had the opportunity to work toward change while witnessing firsthand the skill and dedication necessary to be a civil rights advocate. Really though, SLC has been aiding me. My outlook on education and public interest law has been changed for the better.

Octavio Simoes-Ponce is a 2010-11 Public Interest Law Fellow. The Public Interest Law Fellowship Program is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation to promote public interest law, and offered at the Levin College of Law by the Center for Governmental Responsibility.

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