Florida Judge Throws Out Suit Challenging Equitable Funding for Charter School Students

A Florida judge Wednesday dismissed a high-profile lawsuit seeking to block parts of a new state education law that promoted equitable funding for students attending district and charter schools.

In a ruling issued from the bench, Judge John Cooper of the Circuit Court of Leon County in Tallahassee dismissed all six complaints against the state Department of Education and a host of Florida officials. Attorneys for the counties that brought the suit on behalf of their local districts have not said whether they will appeal.

The law, referred to as House Bill 7069, requires districts not in financial distress to share local property taxes raised to pay for facilities with public charter schools in their areas. In the past, districts could choose whether to share the revenue. The plaintiffs claimed sharing the funds would harm the districts.

Access to facilities and money to pay for them is a common problem in the charter sector. While states vary in whether and how they aid the independently operated schools in closing this gap, it is a common and highly politicized issue.

Shawn Arnold, the attorney representing several Florida families and charter schools that joined the defendants, hailed the decision. The court, he said, agreed that “the goal of more equitably funding charter schools was constitutional.”

“In Florida, the money belongs to the child,” said Arnold. “Where the child goes to school, the money should follow. That was not the case prior to House Bill 7069.”

The founder and board chair of the Marco Island Academy charter school, Jane Watt, called the decision “a huge win for Florida students and charter schools.”

“Our school desperately needs the facilities funds,” she told reporters Thursday. “It’s the only school in the district operating entirely in trailers,” an issue that dates to 2011.

Attorneys for the districts that brought the suit were not immediately available to comment, nor were the state attorneys who defended the law. Court documents lay out the potential scope of the funding cliff some of the districts say they now face.

In Broward County, district leaders estimate they will have to send $17 million to $25 million to charters in 2018, the first year House Bill 7069 is in effect. Over the first five years, they said, that amount could mushroom to $123 million.

Without the funds, the plaintiffs argued, districts could not grow, maintain existing facilities, or, in some cases, make good on financial commitments.

The judge also rejected challenges to other provisions of the law, all of which give charters more autonomy from the districts, which in the past served as the sole authorizers of charter schools. The 2017 law created a limited category of public charter schools, Schools of Hope, that could operate independently of their districts and loosened a handful of other district controls.

The new law also allows charter schools to become school districts, a legal distinction they already enjoy in many states that allows for additional flexibility. And, the law changes the document that districts and charters must use as a starting point for negotiating contracts.

One provision that Cooper declined to block has ramifications that challenge districts’ authority over the way a key pot of federal aid is distributed both to charter and traditional schools. Decisions regarding how to spend Title I funds, intended to offset the costs of educating concentrations of children in poverty, now will be made at the school level.

In the past, districts could decide, within parameters, where best to use the federal dollars. Given fears among some policy analysts that this practice perpetuated inequities, a number of districts now more closely direct state and federal funds to schools that enroll the students whom the money is intended to support.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to begin developing systems for tracking how closely Title I and other targeted funds are spent.

The court’s decision does not resolve a separate lawsuit filed by Palm Beach County challenging only the law’s local property tax sharing provision.

It is unclear is how the decision could impact several hotly contested elections on the 2018 ballot, including this year’s gubernatorial contest, which Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, one of the law’s chief architects, is expected to join.

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