BOE member: Florida school funding lawsuit is “exercise in madness”

Having a judge determine how much money to spend on Florida schools and where to spend it is “an exercise in futility, and madness, and a waste of funds,” Florida Board of Education member Roberto Martinez said today.

Martinez’s comments came after a Department of Education attorney updated the board on a high-profile lawsuit that charges the board and lawmakers with violating state constitutional provisions for high quality schools. It was filed in 2009 by eight plaintiffs, including the Orlando-based parents group Fund Education Now. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court refused to block it from going to trial.

Martinez, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, is among the defendants. Here is what he had to say:

So basically they’re asking a sitting trial court judge in a county – in this case, Leon County – to tell 67 superintendents and the Board of Education, for example, how much funding to put into a particular program in a district, correct? Among other things? (The attorney says yes.)

I’ve probably been one of the most outspoken members on the board for more funding for education, funding for effective programs and I believe we need more of it. But to have a court judge, no matter how capable – and this is a capable jurist – be given the responsibility to determine how much money is adequate, in order to fund a particular service or program in a particular district in the state of Florida, is an exercise in madness. It is a ridiculous relief to request because at the end of the day, it cannot be implemented. It cannot. And in fact, a judge does not have the authority to tell the Legislature how much money to appropriate. They don’t make the funding decisions.

I was listening to National Public Radio the other day, when they did a brief excerpt of the oral argument in the Board of Governors tuition case. And Justice Pariente – who was a member of the panel that struck down the scholarship voucher program in Bush vs. Holmes – Justice Pariente stated that she did not believe it was the role of the judiciary to get involved in funding decisions. That was the role of the Legislature. And she’s absolutely correct. So at the end of the day we’re going to have a trial court judge be asked to issue an injunction and a declaratory act, a declaratory judgment, to tell us and the Legislature and the districts and the superintendents and the school boards how much money to spend on a given program or service, with regards to the way education is delivered in a district in the state of Florida. That is an exercise in futility, and madness, and a waste of funds.

I hope that my statements here today, by a board member who has been sued, and is probably the strongest advocate for more funding for programs that work, is used as evidence at that trial by somebody. Because at the end of the day, this good judge, who is very well intentioned and capable, has to realize that she’s been asked to do the absolute impossible.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).