Florida education on trial; Lawsuit seeks to redefine public education to benefit poor

By Eric Barton, FloridaBulldog.org flaed

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

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 is expected to be a rebuke of Florida’s public education system. Parents, teachers, school administrators and a slew of experts will seek to prove the state has failed to provide a quality education to public school students.

In its defense, the state will attempt to demonstrate that Florida’s public 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 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. “Structures and mechanisms are not in place to make sure poor and minority students are not underserved in the state.”

Leon County Circuit Judge Gene Reynolds III

Leon County Circuit Judge Gene Reynolds III

The non-jury trial that begins March 14, and is likely to last five weeks, will be presided over by Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III. The trial 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.

A constitutional amendment

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 the state has failed its public school students. Perhaps most damaging to the state’s cause: Florida ranks among the lowest states in the nation in per-pupil funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Attorney Neil Chonin Photo: University of Florida, Bob Graham Center

Attorney Neil Chonin
Photo: University of Florida, Bob Graham Center

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 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 over-all 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.

In court documents, the state has indicated it plans to call 16 witnesses, mostly state-level administrators, including Pamela Stewart, the Florida Department of Education commissioner. The state will also use several experts, including from the conservative, but nonpartisan Hoover Institution and the University of Arkansas. Also expected to take the stand in support of the state will be Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system of higher education and former Florida lieutenant governor. Brogan didn’t return an email and phone message left at his office, and the state’s other experts declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

successA 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 nine percentage points below the national graduation rate of 80 percent. Only six states and the District of Columbia have lower graduation rates than Florida.

Worse for minorities and poor

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 rebuke of public education and could set the standard for similar lawsuits elsewhere in the country.

Rarely has the quality of public education been subject to such a public tribunal, and Milner said the closest comparison may be the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which led to school desegregation. While the Florida case likely won’t lead to any national changes, it could expose flaws in the practice of desegregation, Milner said.

“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.”

Chonin said he can prove at trial that the state has violated the constitutional amendment because it has failed to provide a “uniform and efficient” public school system. The state, Chonin said, funds education using local taxpayers, meaning poorer counties have fewer resources.

“You have counties like Sarasota or Palm Beach that have high property taxes, and then you compare them to Gadsden or Savannah or Jefferson counties,” Chonin said. “Their taxes are far less, and because of that, the performance of their schools can’t compare.”

Jonthan A. Glogau, special counsel at the Florida Attorney General's Office.

Jonthan A. Glogau, special counsel at the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The plaintiffs will claim the state’s testing methodology is unfair to minorities and serves only to hurt the education process. They have listed 70 potential witnesses, with 40 who could appear in person at the trial. The list includes several instructors. Among them is Alachua County kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles, who refused in 2014 to administer the state’s standardized tests and garnered headlines and public support for her decision. Also expected to testify is Chris Guerrieri, the Jacksonville teacher who writes a blog critical of the state’s education bureaucracy.

School administrators also are expected to take the stand in support of the plaintiffs, including superintendents from Franklin, Hernando, Duval and Alachua counties.

If Citizens for Strong Schools succeeds at the non-jury trial, Judge Reynolds 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.

Taking sides

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. Its executive director, former Tampa schoolteacher Catherine Durkin Robinson, says the voucher program lets parents choose the best education model for their children. If lawmakers are forced to create a new funding model for education, voucher programs could be at stake.

“Funding is important, but empowered parents choosing from a robust array of options is more important,” 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 that has crippled schools in the state. That has meant inadequate salaries for teachers, which leads to more turnover and fewer chances to lure teachers from other professions, he said in a recent interview.

“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 state’s 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.”

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10 Comments Post a Comment
  1. qui tam says:

    Oh where oh where is that dastardly Rick Scott, the same gov who currently embroiled in the nationally publicized Broward Health debacle? I wonder how his tendrils intertwine in this.

  2. Bill says:

    Vouchers are a disaster waiting to happen. Just give it time

  3. Teenah says:

    What’s really wrong is that these high stakes tests these kids are subjected not only tell them If they can proceed to the next grade level but are also tied in with the moneys each school gets per child. Children are NOT standard therefore they should NOT be standardized by a test that even the creators deem flawed. Putting a number on kids scores puts them into categories kids get stressed because of these tests. They know they must get a certain score or be held back. Its no wonder the drop out rate is high.

  4. zigy says:

    dan will u be at the irish breakfast sunday, murphy is being honored as the irshman of the year see you there the food is horrible but there all there in one room, every pol and wannabe in town bring buddy youy can get tickets at the door. cavasnugh will speak…..

  5. No Vouchers! says:

    Hearing Rubio talk about climate change made me realize why voucher students don’t get tested on science like the public school kids. If the voucher schools were doing better than public schools, PROVE IT by taking the same tests for ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies. PROVE IT by publishing results of schools with 10 or more students like the public schools and not 30 or more like voucher schools.

    According to the Abeka teachings in 8th grade science (some of Florida voucher schools use this curriculum):
    “God, the only eyewitness to the formation and geologic history of earth, sheds light on those areas in His Word, and His statements are irreconcilable with evolutionary philosophy. For example, the great Flood in Genesis 7 and 8 is undoubtedly responsible for the earth’s present features and fossils, although evolutionist reject the Flood as a myth.”

    According to the Abeka teachings in 12th grade American Government:
    “Americans have many reasons to be thankful. Throughout most of history, hunger and exposure to the elements have been a way of life for most people, yet the United States has never experienced a famine. Few Americans go to bed hungry each night, though many go to bed forgetting to be thankful for this land of plenty.”

  6. Michelle Williams says:

    Finally!!!! I’ve been praying for this day to come! I can’t stop the system but I can join forces to fight for what’s fair! I work in a “low income” school and trust me it’s heart wrenching!!!!!

  7. terre says:

    It is mismanagement of public trust and funds at every level. In HillsboroughCounty public school are funded as though they are private, from renovations to athletics. With little oversight or accountability. Donations are sought for everything from new cars for a student not missing a day of school (thereby feeling pressure to come to school sick), to extravagant prizes at auctions for the upper tier fundraisers. Contracts are given to friends and relatives for replacing the HVAC ($5,000,000 and Coleman Middle school supplied the chiller!) to the occasional school gardens which languish after kids lose interest after being told they can’t eat the produce, because they aren’t an “approved vendor”. Long term maintenance contracts are given for fleet inventory, yet ‘no idling’ programs or programs to lower carbon footprint are ignored. We are doing all kids a disservice by promoting college for all, when they then can’t get jobs because of no experience, when there are proven apprenticeship programs that will fill the needs of employers AND workers- but high school counselors don’t reach out to parents and students who would benefit. School ratings mean little, as anything can be made to look different- on paper. There is such an opportunity at present, to take advantage of the changing climate by using technology to find solutions to using LESS-energy, goods, and even food, and getting more satisfaction intellectually and other ways, but we blindly follow our leaders, not questioning, only complaining. Not asking for reasons why, just demanding change when we become so frustrated, but not engaging to find collaborative ways to be better. We are becoming less and less of what our potential is and will soon be surpassed in almost every way by someone else. India is figuring out how to become fossil fuel independent- we just beat our chests and dig deeper into the ground for scraps and globs of oil- no matter what the cost to ourselves through environmental damage and contamination, and THEY AREN’T TEACHING US ABOUT IT. Sure, the information is there if you look, along with counter information. God help us all, whoever you believe him to be.

  8. STEVEN P. WILLIS says:

    As a retired, 23 year middle school teacher in Broward County, I applaud your effort to wage war against the status quo of Florida’s woeful education system. Eric Barton’s March 13 Miami Herald article: “Florida education on trial:…”, was just the tip of the iceberg regarding the state’s education policies and how they have failed more than a generation of our children. Florida’s record for “per student spending”, the true benchmark for a state’s commitment to its public schools, has been among the lowest 4 or 5 states for the past 30 years. This is not a new phenomena. Broken contracts with classroom educators has been commonplace resulting in low morale, which affects all of our children. The class limit amendment was rudely received by legislators, who showed us ignorant constituents that laws regarding funding must come from them. The result was counties were forced to raise millage rates to fund what we the people amended our constitution to force our legislators to act. We have basically eliminated music, art, shop, home economics, drama, and most enrichment courses to teach more reading and math so the school will grade higher in the current system. The motivated, the talented, and those from strong families succeed in any system. Florida has not failed them. It’s all the others that are doomed to a lifetime of lower expectations and a lower standard of living because of an inferior, unimaginative public school education. Thank you for being our “David” trying to take down a menacing “Goliath”!

  9. Tony W says:

    Nothing new here. When I was in high school in Coral Gables in the 60s, the entire Duval County (Jacksonville) school system lost its accreditation. And it’s pretty clear that Florida’s public schools have only gone downhill from there. Too bad for the kids.

  10. Michele Baker says:

    I’ve been praying for this! I will be taking my children out of school & homeschooling until all of the FSA/CC is gone.

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