Paramount Duty: Who Pays?

justiceThe state has a paramount duty to provide all students with a uniform, safe, efficient, and high quality education, according to the Florida constitution. The State Board of Education’s new budget adds $476 million increase to education funding.

It would seem to be a step in the right direction in meeting the constitutional mandate.  Based on a Washington state Supreme Court decision, it may be that Florida is actually skirting its obligation to students.

Today’s Bradenton Herald reports that $426 million of the increase will come from local property and business taxes.  The state will not be providing the money, but it is the state’s responsibility.  This is not a new  situation.  The local share of the education budget has been increasing for many years.  Currently, the education budget is derived from:

  • 47% local property tax
  • 40.1% state sales taxes, lottery, unclaimed property
  • 12.7% federal sources
The Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit charges that Florida is not meeting its paramount duty.  Individual words in legislation matter.  So, I checked to see how the word ‘paramount’ was defined.  In the McCleary case in Washington state, the definition was “supreme, preeminent, dominant”.  A summary of the decision described the State’s duty to:  “amply provide for the education of all Washington’s children as the State’s first and highest priority before any other programs or operations”. 
In Washington, state sources were supposed to amply provide for students’ basic educational needs.  Local property tax levies were to be used only for enrichment.  In its ruling, the Washington Supreme Court maintained that local property taxes were unlawfully being used to support basic education.  Thus, the state was not meeting its paramount duty.  In 2014, the Court ruled the state ‘in contempt”.  In 2015, the Court fined the State $100,000 a day for failure to rectify the inadequacies in state education funding.
Is Florida, providing a uniform, safe, efficient and high quality education for all of its children?  What do these words mean?  Surely they do not mean that the state can ignore consistent large achievement gaps between racial and socio-economic groups of children.
Does the word ‘paramount’ have a different meaning in Florida?  Can the State shift the burden of funding to local communities and continue to cut its share from general revenue?  Is a policy of ‘saving money’ by shifting students into increasingly segregated schools with ‘flexible’ accountability solving a problem or hiding a problem?   Can Governor Scott continue to provide large corporate tax breaks and at the same time, increase property taxes in local communities?  Is this how the paramount duty of the state is fulfilled in Florida?
The Florida lawsuit comes to trial in March 2016.  These are some of the issues that are at stake.  In court it all comes down to how words are defined.  In the legislature, it comes down to the views of the people we elect.



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