Lauren’s Kids funnels $3.1 million to politically connected public relations firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Tallahassee’s Sachs Media Group produced this billboard in 2014.

A nonprofit run by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book and lavished with millions of dollars in state handouts by lawmakers paid a Tallahassee public relations firm with considerable political clout $3.1 million between 2012 and 2015.

The payments by Lauren’s Kids to Sachs Media Group accounted for 28 percent of the charity’s $10.8 million in expenses, according to Lauren’s Kids most recent available tax returns. In the same period, the Florida Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids – which employs Sen. Book as its $135,000-a-year chief executive and counts powerful lobbyist Ron Book, her father, as its chairman – $9.6 million in grants.

The nonprofit’s payouts to Sachs Media for 2016 are not publicly available. A spokeswoman for Lauren’s Kids did not respond to requests to view that information.

Florida Bulldog reported last week that Sen. Book, using a loophole in state conflict-of-interest rules, voted last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids.

Millions of taxpayer dollars flowed through the nonprofit to Sachs Media as it both promoted Lauren’s Kids and cultivated Sen. Book’s public persona as a survivor of child sex abuse. Critics say the domination of Lauren’s Kids by the senator and her lobbyist-father raises concerns that the work Sachs Media does is more about making her look good, not raising awareness about unreported cases of child sex abuse.

“There is nothing wrong with an individual promoting that they have done good work,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch. “However, it would appear the father can pull some weight to push the organization in a direction that would be beneficial for the daughter. It is more likely for that to happen more so than helping kids.”

If that’s the case, then the Books and Sachs Media are abusing the public’s trust, Borochoff added. “Nonprofit money is supposed to be used for a public benefit and not to enhance the aspirations of the charity’s officers,” Borochoff said. “But sometimes there is an overlap and it can become a side effect for someone running a charity.”

‘Proud of our work’

Sachs Media founder and chief executive Ron Sachs did not return two phone messages seeking response to a list of detailed questions emailed to him on June 12. Instead, Sachs Media president Michelle Ubben provided Florida Bulldog with a written statement noting that the firm is “not currently engaged by Lauren’s Kids.”

“We are particularly proud of our work to help the Lauren’s Kids foundation develop sexual abuse prevention curricula for grades K-12, and to raise awareness of the signs of child abuse and public reporting requirements,” Ubben’s statement read. She referred specific questions about the firm’s work with Lauren’s Kids to the nonprofit’s spokeswoman and former Sachs Media account executive Claire VanSusteren.

Ron Sachs

“We have worked with Sachs in the past to raise awareness about child sexual abuse,” VanSusteren said in an emailed statement. “[Sachs] has, over the course of several years, completed communications work and engaged a variety of subcontractors related to deliverables for state contracts.”

A former news reporter and editor who did stints as spokesman for Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Ron Sachs founded his company in 1996, specializing in corporate branding, marketing and crisis management. His early victories included a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission and helping repeal an automatic 20 percent phone rate hike tacked onto a bill in 2003.

Six years later, Sachs landed more than $130,000 worth of work from the Associated Industries of Florida, according to a 2011 Florida Trend article. The same year, Sachs Media was retained by an anonymous group of oil and gas producers called Florida Energy Associates to do a campaign promoting the removal of the prohibition on drilling in the state’s offshore waters.

Sachs Media has also counted the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its clients, producing a web-based public affairs program called “The Bottom Line.”  Another program, “Florida Newsmakers,” features one-on-one interviews with top state bureaucrats answering softball questions. According to an online database of state contracts, Sachs Media has also been awarded small and large media jobs by various state agencies.

For instance, the Florida Lottery paid Sachs Media $150,000 in February 2013 for an educational multimedia campaign. A year later, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs paid Sachs Media $3,720 for table throws stamped with the department’s emblem. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded the firm a $316,250 contract in 2014 to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida’s Panhandle.

Sachs media faced criticism

Sachs Media has faced criticism over its business practices in recent years. In 2014, the firm dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the family of a paralyzed Broward County man after a public outcry over Sachs Media’s heavy-handed tactics against its former client, who was left brain damaged by the car of a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. Sachs had claimed Eric Brody’s relatives owed the firm $375,000 for four years of public relations and media outreach services.

A year later, a state audit of a $296,105 Sachs Media contract with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that the agreement did not clearly establish the tasks to be performed by the firm, did not contain documentation requirements, did not sufficiently identify the activities or services to be provided and included three amendments for an additional $135,421.

“In general, the agreement had no scope of work or deliverable issues,” the audit states. “The amendments did not fall within the original scope of work and did not clearly establish the tasks the provider was required to perform.” (Ubben did not comment on the dropping of the lawsuit and on the audit’s findings.)

According to Sachs Media’s website, the firm was retained by Lauren’s Kids in 2007, the year the nonprofit was founded. “Lauren’s Kids engaged our firm to conceptualize and bring to life a breakthrough strategy that would get people aware, educated, and mobilized to prevent this dark, societal secret – child sexual abuse,” a statement on the website reads. “We branded the Lauren’s Kids Foundation and generated extensive, multi-year media coverage – including the cover of Newsweek – around an annual 1,500-mile walk for awareness throughout Florida.”

In addition, Sen. Book and her cause have been featured by Nancy Grace, USA Today, Lisa Ling, Jane Velez-Mitchell and various local media outlets due to Sachs Media’s public relations work, the website states.

Sachs Media was also involved in helping Sen. Book market and promote her autobiography “It’s OK to Tell” and her annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee, as well as producing billboards, public service announcements and a curriculum for grades K-12 about child sex abuse prevention. The curriculum features web-based video lessons starring Sen. Book and reading materials that recount how she was sexually abused by her nanny during her teen years.

In 2015, Sachs Media conducted an online survey for Lauren’s Kids that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children. However, the accuracy of the online survey, which national polling experts dismiss as being unreliable and inaccurate, could not be verified because Sachs Media declined to provide its methodology and backup data to Florida Bulldog.

The payments

Here’s the breakdown of Lauren’s Kids payments to Sachs Media as detailed in the nonprofits tax returns:

  • $670,032 for “public relations.” That accounted or 33 percent of Lauren’s Kids’ $2 million in expenses that year.
  • $957,977 for “program support,” or 63 percent of Lauren’s Kids $1.5 million in expenses.
  • $579,772, or 20 percent of expenses.
  • $966,100 for programming support. Sachs subcontractor, The POD Advertising, was paid $349,800, with both accounting for 28 percent of Lauren’s Kids expenses that year.

The owner of a Miami-based public relations firm who requested anonymity said the amount of money Lauren’s Kids has paid Sachs Media is shocking. “It’s pretty outrageous that a PR firm is billing that much to a nonprofit,” the owner said. “Usually, you are taking on charities on a pro-bono basis or providing them with a significant discount.”

Claire VanSusteren

Sen. Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Ron Book did not respond to requests for comment. However, Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman VanSusteren defended the work performed by Sachs Media, noting the campaigns have taught Floridians the importance of openly discussing child sex crimes.

“We have received countless calls and messages from parents, educators and law enforcement officers sharing stories of children coming forward and disclosing abuse thanks to our curriculum program,” she said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important than protecting childhood. That’s what it’s all about.”

For example, she said, Sachs managed content production and communications related to a Lauren’s Kids public awareness campaign called “Don’t Miss the Signs” developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

She claimed that reports of abuse to the DCF hotline rose by 30 percent during the campaign and that Lauren’s Kids has received positive feedback from numerous teachers and police officers about the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum Sachs Media produced. In her statement to Florida Bulldog, VanSusteren included testimonials from unidentified teachers and guidance counselors.

One was from a self-described educator at James M. Marlowe Elementary School in New Port Richey who said, “I love the fact that it’s simple and easy to implement. I love the fact that there isn’t a lot of prep time needed for the lessons.”

Yet, the testimonial said nothing about the curriculum’s effectiveness in preventing child sex abuse.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

Two Miami-Dade charter schools loaned $900K in taxpayer funds to sister schools

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two Miami-Dade charter schools illegally transferred taxpayer funds by lending a combined $912,094 to sister schools outside the county, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Education has determined.

As a result, Miami-Dade Public Schools auditor Jose Montes de Oca is recommending the district initiate efforts to recoup the money even as a representative for one of the charter schools claims no law was broken.

On Dec. 6, Montes de Oca will brief the school board audit and management committee on what steps the district can take to recoup the funds used for the loans.

In an Oct. 21 letter to school district attorney Walter Harvey, education department general counsel Matthew Mears said Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead and BridgePrep Academy in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood were prohibited from making loans to affiliated schools not in Miami-Dade.

“Funds that are appropriated to a local school district are for the education of the students within the school district,” Mears wrote. “For this reason, the transfer of appropriated funds across district lines, with or without interest, is not authorized.”

Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Keys Gate disputed Mears’ conclusion that the $700,000 loaned to Clay Charter School in Middleburg, Florida, is illegal. Keys Gate and Clay are operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the country’s largest charter school management companies, under a contract with the foundation.

“We have not received any direction or concern regarding this issue,” Reynolds told Florida Bulldog. “However, we believe we are in full compliance with the law.”

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Juan Carlos Quintana, a principal with S.M.A.R.T. Management, the company that developed and operates BridgePrep Academy, did not return three phone calls and an email message seeking comment about the $212,094 loan given to an unidentified affiliated school in another county. Two other Miami-area charter schools under the BridgePrep name also had loaned a combined $18,949 to sister schools outside the county, but those funds have already been paid back, according to a Sept. 12 Montes de Oca memo to the audit committee.

The dispute over the use of district school funds for loans initially arose in May when Montes de Oca notified the school board’s audit and management committee about the problem following his review of annual financial statements for 2015 submitted by Keys Gate and BridgePrep. At the time, Keys Gate had loaned Clay Academy $750,000 with zero interest. Since then, the loan was paid back, but Keys Gate issued another loan for capital improvements at Clay Academy. This second loan is for $700,000 with a five percent interest rate and a term of five years, according to Montes de Oca’s September letter.

Opinon sought

The school board attorney sought an opinion from Mears after Keys Gate officials informed Montes de Oca that the loans were acceptable under state law, according to a Nov. 30 letter by the school district auditor.

Mears’ response that the loans are illegal prompted Montes de Oca to recommend that the money be returned. “The district administration plans to formally notify these schools of the state’s guidance and that the loan funds must be repaid,” Montes de Oca wrote.

Charter school watchdogs told Florida Bulldog the loans illustrate a total disregard for taxpayer funds diverted from public schools to private educational institutions. Lisa Guisbond, executive director for Citizens for Public Education, an organization that advocates against charter schools and standardized testing in Massachusetts, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should be held accountable for the mishandling of school district funds.

“It seems bizarre that a charter school would have an extra $750,000 to loan out when so many public schools are scraping by to meet the needs of their students,” Guisbond said. “That kind of blows my mind. It’s outrageous, even.”

Carol Burris, executive director for the New York-based Network for Public Education, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should not have given out the loans in the first place.

“In the case of these charter schools, their allegiance to their sister charters was greater than their allegiance to the children of Miami-Dade County they are supposed to serve,” Burris said. “They put the needs of the charter schools ahead of the needs of the kids. That is a problem.”

It’s a good thing both schools were caught, she added. “Hopefully, it will discourage other charters from doing the same,” Burris said. “And I hope the citizens of Miami-Dade have all of their tax dollars returned.”

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.”

Newsletter

Notify me by email when new stories are published.