Hannah Jacobs is a 1L at the American University Washington College of Law. She graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology and a master’s in political science. The year after graduating and before law school, Hannah worked in Florida as a college adjunct instructor and a high school English teacher. She is now pursuing a legal career in education and civil rights.

The Florida Constitution asserts that children’s education is a “fundamental value” to the people of the state,[1] though it used to be a “fundamental right.”[2] The distinction glaringly reflects the intent of the Constitution Revision Commission following concerns after Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles[3] “that the state might become liable for every individual’s dissatisfaction with the education system.”[4] The battle in Florida courts is steep for education reformers because “this language still did not provide measurable goals by which the court could judge legislative performance and enforce the provision in any particular manner.”[5]

The state’s “paramount duty” is to provide “adequate” education for all its children, measured as “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality.”[6] Any Florida teacher, student, parent, or lawmaker would readily admit the state seems to be falling short on some, if not all, measures. The court in Chiles seemed content that the education system was “uniform” if the system’s parts served a common purpose.[7]

As to adequate funding under the “uniform” language, the courts have been wary of overstepping the separation of powers to address budget concerns.[8] At least until 1992, no court had found this uniformity requirement in state constitutions to guarantee equality of education funding.[9] Interested parties might then wonder what if any power the judicial branch can exercise to uphold the state’s “value” of education when facing state leadership that is increasingly active in education policy both in and around the classroom.[10]

Chiles taught us that the state constitution assigns the legislature with determining the “adequacy” of the public education system.[11] And after Citizens for Strong Schools v. Board of Education, it’s hard to imagine what “manageable standard” could be asserted such that the court could make broad sweeping clarifications of the adequacy of public k12 education without judicial intrusion into the legislature.[12] Citizens’ attempt to create a manageable standard for a “high quality” education system was shot down by the court because defining this by core content standards assessment results, as the plaintiffs in this case purported to do, would be constitutionalizing legislative standards.[13]

Florida courts have evaded taking any role in specifying the meaning of “adequacy” or “uniform,” especially through bids for education finance reform because these are political questions.[14] Recent Florida court rulings, policies, and the state constitution’s categorization of public education as a “fundamental value”[15] make the prospects of achieving judicial reform seem bleak. However, the courts’ refusal to say “never” to attempts at education reform may be a challenge to lawyers and advocates.[16]

So, what seems to be the key to surpassing the “political question doctrine” such as to present a justiciable claim to the court under article IX, section 1?[17] First, the courts are clear they will not address blanket challenges to the adequacy of the k12 system.[18] For instance, in the one-count complaint in Chiles included five broad-sweeping allegations against the system.[19]

Second, the court is awaiting strong evidence establishing a causal relationship between funding inadequacies and deteriorated student outcomes.[20] The court is not yet convinced that addressing education reform is its constitutional responsibility or worth intruding into the powers of other government branches.[21]

One creative approach would be creating a cause of action for educational malpractice, the remedy for which being awarding damages to students who had been denied basic educational benefits or ordering the defendant, school or otherwise, to implement more effective practices.[22] Though this would be an effective deterrent against the state neglecting the education system, this would still require a definition of educational adequacy.

The public is not entirely remediless when facing language in the Florida constitution which fails to provide measurable goals. Courts more recently have come to acknowledge the difficulty in addressing the clash between separation of powers and the people’s right to demand adequacy under the state constitution.[23] One potential approach would follow a 1972 Dade County case by asking the courts to require the legislature to adopt specific measurable standards to implement the constitutional amendment.[24] This strategy would ensure the courts do not, “intrude on the Legislature’s power of appropriation or on its ability to identify and adopt specific measurable standards to implement the amendment.”[25]

Not all hope is lost for Florida education reform, but change-seekers must ask the courts narrower questions, produce glaring evidence, and tread the lines of separation of powers carefully.

[1] Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a).

[2] Id. (amended 1998).

[3] See Coal. for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles, 680 So.2d 400 (Fla. 1996).

[4] Fla. Const. Revision Comm., Commentary to 1998 Amendment (asserting that children’s education is a “fundamental value”).

[5] Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., 81 So. 3d 465, 474 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2011) (Wolf, J., concurring).

[6] Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a).

[7] Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400, 406 (Fla. 1996) (explaining that the “uniform” provision never intended to make school districts direct replicas of one another).

[8] Id. at 406—07

[9] Richard J. Stark, Education Reform: Judicial Interpretation of State Constitutions’ Education Finance Provisions-Adequacy vs. Equality, 1991 Ann. Surv. Am. L. 609, 630 (1992).

[10] See Ayana Archie, A lot is happening in Florida education. These are some of the changes kids will see, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Aug. 14, 2023, 5:07 AM) (exemplifying some recent policy changes in Florida schools, including the Florida Governor’s banning of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in public schools; the increased income limit for private school vouchers; and the Parental Rights in Education Law), https://www.npr.org/2023/08/14/1193557432/florida-education-private-schools-prageru-desantis; see also Ileana Najarro, What’s With All the Education News Out of Florida? A Recap of Education Policy Decisions, Educ. Week (Aug. 16, 2023) (exemplifying some new, controversial education standards), https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/whats-with-all-the-education-news-out-of-florida-a-recap-of-education-policy-decisions/2023/08.

[11] 680 So. 2d at 408.

[12] 262 So. 3d 127, 140 (Fla. 2019).

[13] Id. at 141 n.9 (citing an amicus brief from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an entity dedicated to promoting the privatization of schools) (reasoning that this would have the opposite of the intended effect by weakening curriculum standards).

[14] See Coal. for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc., 680 So.2d at 406—07; see also Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., 262 So. 3d at 139-41.

[15] Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a) (amended 1998).

[16] Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., 262 So. 3d at 140.

[17] Id.; Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a).

[18] Coal. for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc., 680 So. 2d at 402.

[19] Id. (describing that appellants alleged: “(1) Certain students are not receiving adequate programs to permit them to gain proficiency in the English language; (2) Economically deprived students are not receiving adequate education for their greater educational needs; (3) Gifted, disabled, and mentally handicapped children are not receiving adequate special programs; (4) Students in property-poor counties are not receiving an adequate education; (5) Education capital outlay needs are not adequately provided. . .”).

[20] See Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., 262 So. 3d at 143; see also 2022 Mathematics State Snapshot Report, The Nation’s Report Card (showing that only 23% of eighth-grade students in Florida public schools performed at or above the NAEP “proficient” level for mathematics, which was not significantly different from the national average) https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/stt2022/pdf/2023011FL8.pdf; Scores decline again for 13-year-old students in reading and mathematics, NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment Results: Reading and Mathematics, The Nation’s Report Card https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/highlights/ltt/2023/ (last visited Oct. 27, 2023) (showing in a study by the National Center for Education and Statistics (NCES) that national thirteen-year-old reading and mathematics scores have declined, by seven points and fourteen points, respectively, in the last decade).

[21] See Citizens for Strong Sch., Inc., 262 So. 3d at 135.

[22] Stark, supra note 9 at 669.

[23] See Haridopolos, 81 So. 3d at 475 (Wolf, J., concurring).

[24] See Dade Cnty. Classroom Tchrs. Ass’n, Inc. v. Legislature, 269 So. 2d 684, 688 (Fla. 1972).

[25] Id.