Education

Florida education on trial: Lawsuit makes case that system is unfair to poor

Inequities between public schools in rich and poor areas are a key to a lawsuit that could potentially force changes in Florida’s education system.
Inequities between public schools in rich and poor areas are a key to a lawsuit that could potentially force changes in Florida’s education system. The Miami Herald

A case that could fundamentally change how Florida funds and administers education is center stage in a trial that begins Monday in Tallahassee.

The lawsuit, brought by a public advocacy group, wants a judge to declare the state’s public education system unconstitutional. Such a ruling could require lawmakers to envision a new way to fund schools that would seek better parity between the rich and the poor.

The trial shapes up as a rebuke of Florida’s education system. Parents, teachers, school administrators and a slew of experts will seek to prove that the state has failed to provide a quality education to public school students.

In its defense, the state will attempt to demonstrate that Florida schools are among the best in the nation. In a written response to inquiries from the FloridaBulldog.org, Meghan Collins, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, claimed that the lawsuit “ignores the success we have had in Florida schools.

“Working with local education officials, the state remains focused on providing every student in Florida with the opportunity to receive a great education,” Collins wrote.

Critics, however, say Florida schools fail minority and poor students, a fact that’s reflected in graduation rates.

“There are some serious inequities, especially for African-American students and students where English is a second language, in Florida public schools,” said H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert for the plaintiffs.

The non-jury trial, expected to last five weeks, stems from a lawsuit filed in 2009 by Citizens for Strong Schools. The little-known nonprofit was formed in 2008 in hopes of improving education in Alachua County where it supported a local property tax increase passed by voters to help pay for public schools. It has since raised about $12 million annually.

The suit backers pin their case on a constitutional amendment voters passed in 1998 that declares education of children “to be a fundamental value” and requires the state to make education a “paramount duty.” The amendment says the state must “make adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools” within “an efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system.”

The amendment, however, doesn’t define what the state must do to live up to that requirement. Using a set of statistics and experts, the plaintiffs contend that the state has failed its public school students. Perhaps most damaging: Florida ranks among the lowest states in the nation in per-pupil funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The lead attorney representing the group is Neil Chonin, a lawyer for 54 years who retired from his Miami firm to work for Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Gainesville. The three-attorney office faces a team of lawyers from the Florida Attorney General’s Office. “This is certainly a David versus Goliath case,” Chonin said from his Tallahassee office.

Florida’s lead is Jonathan A. Glogau, special counsel chief of the Attorney General’s Complex Litigation Office. He declined to comment, as did the Attorney General’s spokesperson.

Department of Education spokeswoman Collins, in a written response, noted that Florida “has had historic K-12 funding for the last two years.” That repeats a claim Gov. Rick Scott made in October, apparently in reference to the overall education budget, which supporters say has reached its highest level in recent years.

However, it’s a claim PolitiFact Florida ranked false, because per-student spending is lower than it was in the 2007-2008 school year and is dramatically down when accounting for inflation.

A key to the state’s defense will be to insist that it’s reasonable to assume some schools and some students will underperform. “To the extent that deficiencies exist in certain schools, those deficiencies are not caused by nor can they be remedied” by the state, Glogau wrote in Florida’s response to the lawsuit.

The state will also employ statistics to show successes of Florida’s education system. Collins noted in her statement that Florida’s high school graduation rate has increased 18 percentage points since the 2003-04 school year. Over that period, the graduation rate for black and Hispanic students has increased 22 percentage points.

The plaintiffs, however, plan to show that there’s another side to those statistics and that Florida nevertheless remains 9 percentage points below the national graduation rate of 80 percent. Only six states and the District of Columbia have lower graduation rates than Florida.

Chonin says it’s worse for minorities and the poor. Only 59 percent of black students graduate in Florida, compared to the national average of 67 percent. It’s similar for economically disadvantaged students, with only 60 percent graduating, compared to a national average of 70 percent.

“It blew me away when I first started realizing how many kids in the state can’t read and don’t graduate,” Chonin said. “It’s time we hold the state accountable for failing these kids.”

Milner, the University of Pittsburgh professor, said the case could become a landmark of public education and could set the standard for similar lawsuits elsewhere and expose flaws in the practice of desegregation.

“Schools in Florida are largely still not integrated, with rich white communities providing far better education than poor black schools,” Milner said. “There are still major inequities in public education in Florida, and this lawsuit threatens to expose that.”

If Citizens for Strong Schools succeeds at the non-jury trial, Judge George Reynolds III has wide leeway in what he could order. The lawsuit asks the judge to declare that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide a quality education, especially to disadvantaged and minority students. If the judge agrees, he could order the Legislature to rewrite the way education is funded in the state, scrap standardized testing and require new safeguards to assure all students get the same level of education.

Multiple education groups have joined the suit on both sides. Among the groups that oppose portions of the lawsuit is Florida Voices for Choices, which supports voucher programs that allow public school students to attend private schools.

“Funding is important, but empowered parents choosing from a robust array of options is more important,” its executive director, former Tampa schoolteacher Catherine Durkin Robinson, wrote in an emailed response to questions.

But Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie says the voucher programs have contributed to poor funding for education.

“These are dollars that could positively impact teachers’ salaries and provide a better education for our kids,” Runcie said. “This is not how we should treat the people who are teaching the next generation. Teaching should be a profession like any other where we are providing competitive wages.”

Miami-Dade teacher Liane Harris is expected to testify in support of the lawsuit. She teaches at a Secondary Student Success Center (S3C) in Hialeah, a program for students who have been held behind two or more grades.

In 2014, Harris joined several hundred educators and others in a march in downtown Miami to protest Gov. Scott’s education policies. Harris says the standardized tests have failed low-income kids and cuts from voucher programs have left schools struggling to provide even the basics.

“There are kids being left back, year after year,” Harris said. “These tests and these cuts have failed these children.”

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org

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