A Tallahassee-based appeals court wrestled Tuesday with what standard should be applied to Florida's education system, with judges sounding skeptical that courts were even a proper place to hear the issue.
At least two members of a three-judge panel from the 1st District Court of Appeal directed sharp questions at Jodi Siegel, an attorney for a coalition of advocates and parents who sued the state eight years ago for allegedly failing to provide a quality education system.
While the judges questioned both sides, even Siegel conceded afterward that they seemed skeptical about courts' ability to referee the fight.
"They did, and we hope we made our argument," she said.
The central issue in the appeal is whether courts can evaluate the state's obligation under a 1998 constitutional amendment that declares it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."
The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.
But Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds ruled last year that the judiciary should be hesitant to wade too deeply into the issue and give deference to the Legislature under the separation of powers. The judges at Tuesday's hearing seemed more likely than not to agree.
Judge Brad Thomas pointed out to Siegel that writers of a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes set clear benchmarks for the Legislature to follow, but the Constitution Revision Commission that crafted the "paramount duty" clause did not.
"Why didn't they put an objectively measurable stand in the text and say, you have to meet the standard?" Thomas asked.
Judge James Wolf also pushed back on Siegel's references to the state's own accountability system, which drives report cards issued to schools every year.
"Not everybody can be in an 'A' school. ... Is it adequate to have every school that's a 'C' school?" Wolf said.
Siegel said that, if pressed, she would suggest that 75 percent of students across the board meeting state standards would be one potential benchmark. But she also highlighted that some demographic groups and geographic areas of the state don't do as well as others.
"We have a system in which there are such vast differences across the districts and across groups of children that we have to look to what more is needed. And that has not been analyzed by the state," Siegel said.
Rocco Testani, a lawyer representing the state, said those kinds of standards weren't in the amendment.
"This is not Lake Wobegon, and that's exactly what the plaintiffs over and over again were coming up with," Testani said. He was referring to a fictional town created by radio host Garrison Keillor where "all the children are above average."
But the judges seemed wary of the idea that state lawmakers should be given free rein to decide what meets the terms of the amendment.
"Shouldn't the Legislature be required to come up with standards specifically related to this constitutional amendment? Otherwise, isn't this constitutional amendment totally useless?" Wolf asked.
Testani countered that issues about what the state should provide to schools are "inherently political questions," and that the Constitution Revision Commission meant the amendment to be a goal that voters could measure.
"Aspirational statements are enforced at the ballot box —- not in courts of law," he said.