Trial challenging Florida’s education framework wraps up in Tallahassee

Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III presided over a monthlong civil trial challenging Florida’s education system.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III presided over a monthlong civil trial challenging Florida’s education system. The Florida Channel

A four-week trial challenging Florida’s entire public education system and its hallmark components — such as standardized testing, school grades and “school choice” options, like charter schools — concluded Friday.

Numerous witnesses, including state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, testified in Leon County Circuit Court during the trial, which began in mid-March. Judge George Reynolds III isn’t expected to rule in the case for several weeks, as attorneys for both the state and Citizens for Strong Schools have until April 25 to file final written arguments in the case.

The far-reaching lawsuit has the potential to up-end Florida’s entire framework for K-12 public education.

Citizens for Strong Schools filed the lawsuit in 2009. The group wants Reynolds to declare that the Florida Department of Education — and by extension, the Florida Legislature — has failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to provide a “high quality” education for all public school students, particularly low-income and minority students.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Jodi Siegel argued during Friday’s closing arguments that the state has inadequately funded schools and set up a system of accountability and choice that doesn’t give all students a level playing field at achieving the same high-quality education.

Officials from 14 school districts testified “why they’re not able to provide a high-quality education for all children,” Siegel said. “We heard there’s an insufficient amount of resources to provide for these needs.”

As evidence for how the state has failed in its mission, she cited the fact that more than 1 million students, and a half-million who are part of free or reduced-price lunch programs, can’t read at grade level.

Rocco Testani — lead defense attorney for the Florida Department of Education and the Legislature — argued that the state has provided sufficient funding to schools and that student achievement has vastly improved when compared to two decades ago.

In particular, Testani said more money has been directed to high-poverty, low-performing schools, and that achievement gaps for minority students have reduced over time.

“However much that gap has narrowed, it is still not acceptable under a high-quality system of education,” Siegel said.

The case is not about how we’re treating the kids who are achieving; it’s about how we’re treating the kids who are under-performing.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III

Testani said the fault of any failing school or low-performing students rests not with the DOE or the Legislature, but with school districts, school principals and classroom teachers.

He complained that the trial “focused on the worst of the worst,” rather than emphasizing the improved performance of students as a whole or the growing number of “school choice” options available to meet their needs, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

Reynolds interrupted Testani to remind him: “The case is not about how we’re treating the kids who are achieving; it’s about how we’re treating the kids who are under-performing.”

Two failing Pinellas elementary schools, Maximo and Melrose — which received “F” grades for four consecutive years — received some discussion during closing arguments, as Testani attempted to argue they were an anomaly in the state.

But Reynolds didn’t buy it and questioned why the state had accountability standards if they weren’t going to be enforced.

“The court was astounded to hear you can be in this ‘F’ standard for such long time,” Reynolds told Testani. “It’s almost like complacency.”

The two Pinellas schools are among a handful that are now the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Education Department after they were highlighted in the Tampa Bay Times’ “Failure Factories” series. The Times’ yearlong investigation traced the decline of five schools in St. Petersburg’s black neighborhoods after the Pinellas school district abandoned integration efforts in 2007.

Testani said there are only 38 schools in Florida that received “F” grades for two, three or four consecutive years.

“So let’s understand the scale of this issue before doing anything else,” Testani said. “You’re talking about 2 percent.”

At one point during closing arguments, Reynolds questioned how much the court could or should do to direct the Legislature if he were to rule in the plaintiff’s favor.

“At what point in time is the court allowed to cross the constitutional boundary and direct another branch of government to do some act? ... Where’s the authority of the court to do that?” he said. “I believe there is an authority of the court to do that under very, very limited circumstances.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark