The adequacy provision in the Florida Constitution: the next step after Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles.

AuthorBuckner, Michael L.

Over the past decade, the quality of education in the nation's public classrooms has been subject to increased scrutiny. Florida's public educational system has not escaped examination. In particular, citizens are urging immediate and definitive action from their elected representatives to address and resolve the inadequacies of the education their children receive in public schools.[1]

Recent history has witnessed two groups bringing claims against the state, alleging that it failed, through the Florida Legislature's budget appropriation scheme, to provide a uniform system of public education.[2] State courts, in response, have refused to interfere with the prerogative of the legislature in appropriating state funds. Essentially, the courts concluded that the Florida Constitution's education clause is satisfied if "a uniform system results when the constituent parts ... operate subject to a common plan or serve a common purpose."[3] State courts appear satisfied that the legislature is competent to decide what is necessary to provide a uniform system of public education.[4]

The hesitancy of Florida courts to delve into the legislative prerogative regarding the funding of the public school system has not discouraged litigation on behalf of students, parents, and special interest groups. In Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400 (Fla. 1996), a suit was brought in Leon County by a group of concerned and substantially affected citizens, including public school students, parents and guardians, various school boards, and school board members.

This citizens group sought declaratory relief against numerous state government officials and agencies, including the Governor, the Commissioner of Education, the State Board of Education, and the presiding officers of both houses of the Florida Legislature. Specifically, they sought a declaration that "an adequate education is a fundamental right under the Florida Constitution, and that the State has failed to provide its students that fundamental right by failing to allocate adequate resources for a uniform system of free public schools as provided in the Florida Constitution."[5]

The trial court dismissed the declaratory action with prejudice. The parties then filed a joint suggestion with the First District Court of Appeal requesting the court to certify the case as one of great public importance requiring immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court. The case was certified and, on appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the citizens group pleaded a sufficient jurisdictional basis for an action against each state government official, possessed adequate standing, and properly sought declaratory relief. The court, however, held that the citizens group could not succeed because of its failure to show the court:

an appropriate standard for determining "adequacy" that would not present a substantial risk of judicial intrusion into the powers and responsibilities assigned to the legislature both generally (in determining appropriations) and specifically (in providing by law for an adequate and uniform system of education).[6]

The purpose of this article is to present a standard for determining "adequacy" that would allow state courts to uphold the state constitutional provision providing for a uniform school system, and, at the same time, protect Florida's doctrine of separation of powers.

Coalition for Adequacy

In Coalition for Adequacy, the appellants asked the court to declare that "an adequate education is a fundamental right under the Florida Constitution" and that the state failed to meet the constitutional obligations of providing a uniform school system.[7] In affirming the trial court's dismissal of the complaint, however, the Supreme Court determined that the citizens group failed to carry its burden to justify judicial intrusion into the express powers of the Florida Legislature.[8]

To overcome the restrictions of the separation of powers doctrine, Coalition for Adequacy showed that future plaintiffs need to supply a constitutional rationale for judicial intervention into the formation of education policy. The separation of powers doctrine, outlined in Art. II, [section] 3, of the Florida Constitution, provides that "each branch of government has certain delineated powers that the other branches of government may not intrude upon."[9] The Supreme Court has included the appropriations of state funds as an express legislative function that, therefore, falls within the protection of the separation of powers doctrine.[10]

The separation of powers doctrine has left the courts powerless to enforce the adequacy provision. Coalition for Adequacy makes it clear that if Florida is committed to providing greater educational opportunities for students from kindergarten to their senior year in high school, a determination must be made among the responsible branches of state government as to the scope that the "adequacy provision" of the Florida Constitution plays in the formation of educational policy. As the Supreme Court stated in Coalition for Adequacy, the adequacy provision has yet to be defined in any context either by the Florida Legislature or the judicial branch.[11]

Any attempt to quantify the adequacy provision must rely upon an analysis of the plain meaning of the term "adequacy," as well as a review of the historical evolution of the education clause in Florida's past and present constitutions.[12] If the adequacy provision is properly defined, a judicial standard could be constructed that would provide guidance in applying the adequacy provision's intent to the realities of contemporary Florida.

Judicial Standard for the Adequacy Provision

In other states, high courts construct an analytical approach, using textual analysis, historical materials, other state supreme court case analysis, and economic and sociological materials to determine the meaning of a state's constitutional education provisions and to properly draft a judicial standard to enforce the constitutional intent.[13] In Florida, the historical considerations and textual analysis should be given greater emphasis than economic and sociological materials in interpreting the adequacy provision of the education clause. This approach is necessary because the judicial branch in Florida's governmental scheme "defer[s] to the wisdom of those [in the Florida Legislature] who have carefully...

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