K-12 public schools in Florida enroll about 2.6 million students, with 50% in poverty, 9% learning English, 51% minorities, and annual expenditures of over $24 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
Florida’s voters strengthened their constitution’s education article by passing an amendment in 1998. Plaintiffs in Citizens for Strong Schools (CSS) v. Florida State Bd. of Educ. claim the state's education funding system violates this provision. In earlier cases based on the previous, weaker education article, Florida courts held that the constitution left most education determinations to the legislature.
In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court denied the state’s petition for review of a lower court decision to deny the state’s writ of prohibition. This case will now proceed to discovery and trial.
In 1981, in Department of Education v. School Board of Collier County, the Florida Supreme Court found that the legislature may distribute funds unequally on the basis of public educational need.
In 1996, in Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding v. Chiles, the court, citing separation of powers concerns, dismissed a case in which plaintiffs had requested a declaration that the state had failed to provide an adequate education.
After this ruling, the voters approved a stronger education article for the state constitution, and the Citizens for Strong Schools (CSS) plaintiffs base their claim on this article. In its ruling denying the state’s motion to dismiss, the CSS trial court concluded that adopting the state's arguments would render the amendment meaningless, and found that the education article creates standards by which to measure the adequacy of education being provided. See court interpretation, below.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court, in Bush v. Holmes, found a statute that created a voucher program unconstitutional because it caused the state to foster plural, non-uniform systems of education in direct violation of the constitutional mandate for a uniform system of free public schools.
Plaintiffs filed CSS v. Florida State Bd. of Educ. in 2009, alleging that the state’s funding system fails to “make adequate provision for education,” as the state constitution requires, because it relies too heavily on local funding and provides insufficient funding. Plaintiffs also allege that the funding system violates the constitution’s provision requiring a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality of education.” Plaintiffs ask the court to order defendants to establish a remedial plan to comply with the constitution.
In 2010, the trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims. Denial of a motion to dismiss is not appealable in Florida, so this decision allowed the case to proceed to trial. The parties began discovery, but the state filed a writ of prohibition, which is similar to a motion to dismiss. The trial court denied the writ, and the supreme court denied the state’s motion for review of that decision. Nonetheless, the writ served to delay the case considerably.
The education clause of Florida’s constitution, which was amended in 1998 and 2002, states:
“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.” Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(a).
As a result of the 2002 amendments, Florida’s constitution also requires the legislature to make adequate provision for reduced class sizes, and provides that every four-year-old child in the state have access to a "high quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity." Fla. Const. art. IX, § 1(b).
Prior to 1998, the constitution simply required the state to make “[a]dequate provision…for a uniform system of free public schools.”
In Bush v. Holmes, a case challenging a school voucher program, the Florida Supreme Court considered the new education article of the state constitution and cited the Constitution Revision Commission commentary on the 1998 amendment, which explained that the amendment revised the article by
1. making education a “fundamental value,”
2. making it a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of children, and
3. defining “adequate provisions” by requiring that the public school system be “efficient, safe, secure, and high quality.” Bush v. Holmes, 919 So.2d 392 (Fla. 2006).
The court further cited the commentary, as follows:
Early proposals presented before the Constitution Revision Commission framed education in terms of being a “fundamental right.” In response to concerns of commissioners that the state might become liable for every individual's dissatisfaction with the education system, the term “fundamental value” was substituted.
The “paramount duty” language represents a return to the 1868 Constitution, which provided that “[i]t is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provisions for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference.”....
The addition of “efficient, safe, secure, and high quality” provides constitutional standards to measure the “adequacy” provision found in the second sentence of section 1. The action of the commission was in direct response to recent court actions[,that is the 1996 ruling, above]. Id.
The court also commented that the revised language imposes “a maximum duty on the state to provide for public education that is uniform and of high quality.” Id.
The Florida Supreme Court, in Advisory Opinion to the Attorney General re: Voluntary Universal Pre-Kindergarten Education, upheld the constitutionality of a proposed amendment to the state constitution which required the state to offer universal pre-kindergarten education to all four year olds by the 2005 school year. 824 So. 2d 161 (2002). To be constitutional, the amendment could concern only one subject, and the ballot title and summary needed to “state in clear and unambiguous language the initiative's primary purpose.” The court found that these requirements were met.
Florida’s preschool program, called the Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program (VPK), serves 68% of all 4 year-olds, but is rated only 3 out 10 on established quality indicators.
The Florida Legislature has recognized the important role of school readiness programs in increasing children's chances of achieving future educational success and becoming productive members of society.
Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Education Program was established as a result of a 2002 state constitutional amendment requiring prekindergarten access for all of the state’s 4-year-old children. In 2005, the program began operating across the state, serving more than 100,000 children. Enrollment increased in the 2009-2010 program year to 155,877.
There are two pre-K options under VPK: (a) a 3 hour per day program offered during the school year, which does not require a certified teacher, or (b) a 5 hour per day summer program, which offers smaller class sizes and certified teachers. Either option may be offered in a public school or a private preschool or childcare facility, including faith-based and family childcare centers.
Public school districts that offer the summer program must admit all students who are eligible to participate. However, during the school year, public school districts are neither required to offer the VPK program nor admit all eligible students. In fact, school districts are precluded from offering VPK unless they have first met constitutionally imposed class size reduction requirements. Participation in the program by private providers is voluntary, and these providers MAY REJECT children on the basis of religion, socioeconomic status and disability.
VPK legislation does not provide separate funding for transportation, which poses an obstacle for participation for some children.
In addition to the VPK program, Florida operates the School Readiness Program, which coordinates birth-to-kindergarten services for children who meet certain eligibility criteria. Communities can choose to use some of their school readiness funding for pre-K initiatives.
Legislation states that funding will be on a per pupil basis through general appropriations, and that the per pupil amount will be equal for all students, regardless of whether the student attends a public or private program or a program offered during the school year or summer months.
Funding for the VPK program is completely outside the state department of education and public education system. Both public schools and private providers are paid by the Agency for Workforce Innovation through local early learning coalitions. Early local coalitions distribute funds to the VPK programs based on a fixed per-child amount.
Parents are not required to pay for the educational component of the VPK program. However, the cost of transportation and other ancillary services is excluded from state funding and may be passed on to parents.
Although the VPK is wide reaching, Florida has only reached 3 of the 10 benchmarks in NIEER.
The 3 benchmarks reached were:
- Early Learning Standards
- Class size limits of 20 students
- Monitoring/Site visit program
The 7 benchmarks not met were:
- Teacher must have Bachelor’s degree
- Requirement that teachers have specialized training in pre-K education
- Assistant teacher must have a Child Development Associate credential, or equivalent
- Teacher in-service (15 hours)
- Class ratio of 1:10 or better
- Screening/referral and support services
- Requirement to provide at least one meal a day
The VPK program was evaluated for program impact/child outcomes in 2008.
Florida “evaluates” the effectiveness of each provider of the VPK program based only on a kindergarten readiness screening instrument developed by the Department of Education. School districts must administer the screening to all students within the first thirty days of kindergarten. The Department then determines the kindergarten readiness rate of each participating public and private pre-K provider.