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SPLC sues to block misleading Fla. ballot measure that would reduce local control over new public schools

The SPLC sued the state of Florida today, seeking to block a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate local school boards’ right to regulate new public schools – including charter schools – in their districts.

The amendment cannot be legally placed on the November general election ballot because it fails to inform voters of its chief purpose, and deliberately conceals its true effect on public schools, according to the lawsuit.

The suit, which was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters, asks Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Court to prevent Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner from placing the constitutional amendment, known as Revision 8, on the November 2018 ballot.

Revision 8 bundles the school deregulation measure described above with two separate and unrelated constitutional revisions, leaving Florida voters no choice but to approve or reject all three. Further obscuring voters’ choices, the ballot language for Revision 8 combines summaries of all three amendments into a single misleading description, the lawsuit states.

“There are well-established legal standards for placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot,” said Zoe Savitsky, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Ballot language cannot be misleading and must give fair notice to voters of any proposed revision. Only accurate ballot language ensures that voters understand the important changes they are being asked to make to the Florida Constitution. The ballot language for Revision 8 fails these tests and therefore should not be placed on the ballot.” 

On March 21, 2018, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) voted to combine multiple separate proposed constitutional amendments into what is now Revision 8. The 37-member CRC, which convenes every 20 years to propose changes to the state constitution, was dominated by appointees supportive of deregulating public institutions, including public schools.

The other two measures in Revision 8 would limit school board members’ terms and require “the promotion of civic literacy” for students. These two proposals are anticipated to win wide support among voters. They were deliberately combined with the provision stripping local school districts of their authority to authorize and regulate new public schools in their districts, in order to make the deregulatory amendment more likely to pass.

“If Amendment 8 remains on the ballot, there is no way that voters will realize that a yes vote could allow unaccountable political appointees or even private organizations to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” said Patricia Brigham, League of Women Voters Florida President. “We know that Floridians overwhelmingly support the constitutional requirement to make adequate provision for the education of all children that is ‘uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality.’ We are asking the court to ensure that voters aren’t tricked into eliminating those protections.”

In debating the language of Revision 8, members of the CRC did not attempt to hide their true agenda. Revision 8’s proponents are seeking to eliminate the current constitutional duties of county school boards, public entities that are directly accountable to local electors. CRC members supportive of Revision 8 openly acknowledged that the amendment would allow the Florida Legislature to hand over regulatory authority for new public schools to any number of entities, from non-profits to unelected boards.

Yet the ballot language for Revision 8 suggests that the proposed deregulatory amendment would give “the state” that regulatory authority over new public schools.

“By only telling voters that ‘the state’ is permitted to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the elected district school boards, the ballot summary affirmatively misleads voters regarding the purpose and effect of the revision,” the complaint states.

The Florida Supreme Court has held that the courts can determine whether proposed amendments comply with the state constitution’s requirement that they be accurately represented on the ballot.

The Court takes seriously its responsibility to combat the fact that “[a]dvantageous but misleading ‘wordsmithing’ has been employed in the crafting of ballot titles and summaries.”

The Court has further held that, “When such wording selections render a ballot title and summary deceptive or misleading to voters, the law requires that such proposal be removed from the ballot—regardless of the substantive merit of the proposed changes.” 

The Tallahassee-based law firm Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm, P.A. joined the SPLC in filing the lawsuit.