It’s all too rare, but worth savoring, when Florida’s forces of plunder get exposed.
That’s what happened this week when a proposed amendment to the state constitution was deemed too deceptive to be on the November ballot.
Amendment 8 was the product of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member panel that convenes every 20 years to propose changes to the Florida Constitution.
Under Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed 33 of the 37 members of this year’s commission, it’s a golden opportunity for misadventure.
In order to bamboozle the public, the commission failed to present issues on their own, but instead bundled multiple unrelated issues in a single ballot item.
For example, there’s an amendment that asks voters whether to ban offshore drilling in Florida’s waters. But it’s not presented alone. The offshore drilling question is combined with a question about expanding the ban on indoor smoking to include vaping.
In another one, there’s a measure that hamstrings public universities from raising their fees in the same ballot question that expands death benefits to the families of first responders. Another measure pairs changing the retirement age of judges with an expansion of victims rights.
November’s ballot will be riddled with these odd-couple ballot referendum questions, thanks to the commission. It came up with six of them, but lucky for us, there’s one fewer of them now.
And Amendment 8 was a doozy. To understand its perfidy, you need a little history.
In an effort to subvert local school boards in 2006, former Gov. Jeb Bush and the state legislature created the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, a body that could overrule local school boards on the establishment of charter schools in their districts.
The commission gave Tallahassee, not the individual school districts, the ultimate authority to sanction local charter schools, which are privately run schools that are publicly funded and held to different regulatory standards than traditional public schools.
In 2008, 14 school districts in Florida led by Duval County and including Palm Beach County challenged the constitutionality of the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission and won.
The First District Court of Appeal ruled that the Schools of Excellence Commission was unconstitutional because it sanctioned “a parallel system of free public education escaping the operation and control of local elected school boards.”
But the appetite of private entrepreneurs for public school dollars in Florida has only increased during the intervening 10 years with the help of a compliant state government.
And so Amendment 8, titled “School Board Term Limits and Duties, Public Schools” was dreamed up this year to subvert local school boards in the sneakiest of ways.
Voters were given a single up or down vote that combined three very different items:
The measure proposed that school board members be term-limited and that all public school students be taught civic literacy. Those two items were pretty self-explanatory, popular and clear.
But the third element in this single vote wasn’t.
It said that while current law says that “district school boards have a constitutional duty to operate, control and supervise all public schools,” that language will be changed to read that a public school board has a duty to operate, control and supervise all public schools “it establishes.”
And it “permits the state to operate, control and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”
That’s just another version of the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, another way for the state to grab local control of schools away from school districts that don’t go along with their overreaching goals to farm out public education to private businesses.
And it doesn’t even mention the words “charter schools” in the amendment. Most voters would have probably voted for it on the strength of them thinking that civics education and term limits were good ideas.
The amendment had a 75 percent approval rating of voters, according to a poll conducted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
The measure was funded primarily by The Republican Party of Florida, which donated $100,000 to advocate that “8 is great.”
And it might have sailed through if it weren’t for a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of the Florida League of Women Voters.
“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,” league president Patricia Brigham said.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled on Monday that the ballot language on Amendment 8 was too misleading for the measure to be included on the ballot. After hearing arguments from both sides, the judge ruled in summary judgment that the amendment’s wording “fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said the state is reviewing the ruling. It may still appeal.
But at least for now, Florida’s forces of plunder got a civics lesson of their own.