Mills, Chonin delve into upcoming education case
By Andrew Steadman (2L)
Florida’s public schools are struggling.
While that fact is hard to argue, opinions on how to fix the problem are diverse and often conflicting.
Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, filed by a group seeking public education reform, seeks to hold the state government accountable for the system’s woes. The two attorneys who will represent the citizens group spoke about the upcoming litigation Oct. 10 in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom at UF Law. Professor Jon Mills is director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility, former UF Law dean and former speaker of the Florida House, and Neil Chonin is litigation director for Southern Legal Counsel.
The citizens group is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court saying the state is breaching its duty under the Florida Constitution to provide high-quality public education. Mills and Chonin face tough opposition in this litigation, which has already proven to be a trench fight.
The case, originally filed in 2009, has bogged down in procedure, with the court denying the state’s motion to dismiss and the 1st District Court of Appeals affirming the trial court’s ruling.
Now, four years after its original filing, the case is headed for trial.
“I can tell you, when this case started, I didn’t have arthritis,” Chonin said. “Now I have arthritis.”
However, Mills said, this is a cause that is worth the time and effort.
“The constitution of Florida now says that education is a fundamental value of the people of Florida,” Mills said.
The Florida Constitution before 1998 contained language requiring the state to make “adequate provision” for a system of free public schools. The current iteration of the constitution is more specific, requiring that the state maintain a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.
“I have to take some blame for this,” Mills said. “I was on the Constitutional Revision Commission when this was drafted.”
The 1996 case Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in School Funding v. Chiles, heard by the Florida Supreme Court, paved the way for the courts to tackle questions of whether the state is upholding its duty to support public education.
The state’s position is that education reform must be accomplished through the political system rather than through the courts, Chonin said.
Chonin said Florida’s public school system is currently one of the worst in the country, with fewer than 75 percent of high schoolers graduating every year. The numbers are even worse for minority students.
Additionally, Chonin said, Florida is ranked 48th in the country in per capita education spending – the amount the state spends per pupil.
“That’s a tough concept, with the way redistricting has gone, trying to beat incumbents who perhaps are not voting the right way on education,” Chonin said.
The two attorneys presented a broad overview of the approach the legal team is taking, but declined to delve into specific litigation strategy.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Chonin said, laughing. “Because I don’t want my opponents to know that.”
Mills and Chonin are working on the case pro bono, while the state has a team of specialists tackling the opposing arguments.
“I’m not quite sure how, at the end of my career, I ended up with this monster,” Chonin said. “Hopefully within my lifetime, we will have a ruling one way or the other.”