Lila Haughey, Florida Constitutional Law: Closing the Door to Opportunity: The Florida Supreme Court’s Analysis of Uniformity in the Context of Article IX, Section 1

58 Fla. L. Rev. 945 (2006) | | | |

TEXT :: The Florida legislature enacted the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in 2002 to improve the quality of education in Florida, allowing students at failing public schools to either attend another public school or use state funds to enroll at a private school. Florida public school parents and several organizations challenged the constitutionality of the OSP, and the trial court found the OSP facially unconstitutional under article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution. On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision, holding that the trial court erred in finding the OSP unconstitutional. After a second appeal, the First District Court of Appeal certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court: “Does the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program, § 229.0537, Florida Statutes (1999), violate article I, § 3 of the Florida Constitution?” On de novo review, the Florida Supreme Court found the OSP unconstitutional and HELD: The OSP violated article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution.

Article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution declares that “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools . . . .” Historically, Florida courts have struggled to define the terms “adequate” and “uniform” central to the scope of article IX, § 1 and, as a result, the court has vested the Florida Legislature with broad authority to provide for an adequate and uniform education system.


In School Board of Escambia County v. Florida, for example, the Florida Supreme Court examined the constitutional requirement for a uniform system as required by article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution. In particular, the court considered whether the “uniformity” clause “prohibit[ed] a disparity in the number of school board members from district to district throughout the State.”

The court examined case law to determine the significance of the uniformity clause within article IX, § 1. Recognizing the lack of authority on the subject, the Florida Supreme Court crafted a simple and broad definition of uniformity. Specifically, the court stated that “a uniform system results when the constituent parts, although unequal in number, operate subject to a common plan or serve a common purpose.” Applying this analysis of “uniformity” to the composition of school boards, the court noted the importance of reflecting the diverse cultural composition of Florida and, therefore, found no compelling reason to have identical numbers of school board members. As a result, the court held that the special act increasing the size of the school board did not violate the uniformity clause of article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution.

Continuing the Escambia court’s broad interpretation of language in the education article, the court in Scavella v. School Board of Dade County considered the constitutionality of a cap on district funding for the education of an exceptional student at a private school. In Scavella, the court was concerned with the adequacy and quality of the facilities and programs available for exceptional students at certain public schools.

The Scavella court noted that article IX, § 1 of the Florida Constitution required the Florida Legislature “to provide for ‘a uniform system of [f]ree public schools.’” However, rather than concentrating on the “uniform system” requirement, the court focused exclusively on the language of the clause determining that “Florida residents ha[d] [a] right to attend [the] public school system for free.” To preserve this right to a free, high-quality education, the Scavella court accepted the Florida Legislature’s decision to establish a cap on payments to private schools for the education of exceptional students deprived of adequate public school facilities meeting their needs.

Finally, in Coalition for Adequacy & Fairness in School Funding, Inc. v. Chiles, appellants sought a declaration that the state had failed to uphold the fundamental right to education by neglecting to allocate adequate resources for a uniform system of free public schools as provided for in the Florida Constitution. The court spent considerable time opining upon the separation of powers doctrine as it applied to the education article, i.e., whether the legislative or judicial branch had the power to interpret or define the terms contained therein.

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