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Lawsuit claims Florida is failing its schools, wants new education plan

Not enough money. Not enough progress.

Florida is violating the state Constitution by not pouring enough money into schools and relentlessly focusing on high-stakes testing policies that aren't getting good results, says a lawsuit expected to be filed today in Leon County circuit court.

Prepared by a team of lawyers that includes a former Democratic House speaker and a Republican Party patriarch, the suit takes aim at virtually every aspect of the sweeping education overhaul engineered by former Gov. Jeb Bush and kept largely intact by his successor, Gov. Charlie Crist.

Low graduation rates, stagnant test scores, a persistent effort by lawmakers to shift education costs to school districts — all of it shows Florida is not living up to a constitutional mandate to provide high quality schools, the suit says.

Some of the suit's roots go back to last spring's budget cuts, when everything from music programs to teaching assistants were considered for the chopping block, said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of an Orlando-based parents group listed as a plaintiff.

"The first question we asked amongst ourselves was, 'What can we do to fix this?' " Oropeza said Tuesday. "It always came back to legal action."

The proposed remedy: having the court order the state to come up with a new education plan.

The St. Petersburg Times was given a copy of the suit, which is being filed on behalf of eight plaintiffs, including Rose and Alfredo Nogueras, a Hispanic couple whose son is a Pasco County 11th-grader. Two parent groups and two black Jacksonville students also are plaintiffs. The suit alleges that minority students have been especially short-changed.

The plaintiffs' attorneys include former Democratic House Speaker Jon Mills, moderate Republican E. Thom Rumberger and members of Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville public interest law firm.

The defendants are listed as the state Board of Education, Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul.

Board Chairman T. Willard Fair did not return a call for comment. Smith, Atwater and Cretul all declined comment because they had not yet seen the suit.

Bush declined comment, too. But Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for one of his education foundations, foreshadowed the statistical duel that lies ahead.

"It is critical to note Florida has made incredible strides in raising student achievement in the last decade, especially among poor and minority students," she wrote in an e-mail. "In every grade, the percentage of students performing at or above grade level in reading and math has made double-digit leaps since 2001."

The arguments may boil down to what judges think of words like "paramount" and "high quality."

In 1998, 71 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that says educating children is a "paramount duty" of the state and the state shall make "adequate provision" for a school system that is "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality."

The suit says the state isn't living up to those promises and is "misusing" the FCAT to retain some students and keep others from graduating: "Overemphasis on high stakes testing for multiple purposes has not improved overall performance generally."

The suit offers a barrage of statistics as proof: No. 29 in average teacher salaries. No. 39 in per pupil spending. No. 2 in the percentage of teachers who report being threatened by students.

The suit also points to FCAT scores. "Statewide, there is an alarming number of students who are not reading at grade level: 63% of Tenth Graders, 53% of Ninth Graders, and 46% of Eighth Graders," it says.

But measuring school quality is tricky business.

On one hand, Florida schools are in the midst of historic cuts in state education spending — and a dramatic change in who picks up the tab.

Core funding has dropped from $19.3 billion to $17.9 billion in the last two years, and would have fallen further without federal stimulus money. Meanwhile, the Legislature is shifting a bigger share of education funding to districts, lowering the state's contribution from 62 percent in 2001 to 45 percent this year.

On the other hand, Florida schools — for so long the butt of jokes — are now earning kudos from unexpected quarters.

The widely respected Quality Counts report, put together by the Education Week newspaper, gave Florida a No. 10 ranking this year based on a wide range of factors, including funding, policies and academic performance. The state also is a leading contender for a federal Race to the Top grant because its policies mesh closely with President Barack Obama's vision of education reform.

"So many of the mile markers in these kinds of legal cases can be interpreted in two different ways," said Ruth Melton, legislative director for the Florida School Boards Association, which decided, for now, to not file a similar suit. "This is a challenge worth winning. But it will be a long and difficult legal road."

By coincidence, Pinellas County School Board members discussed state funding at a workshop Tuesday as they crafted their wish list to state lawmakers.

One board member suggested the message be distilled to this: "Obey the Constitution."

Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Lawsuit claims Florida is failing its schools, wants new education plan 11/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 7:40am]
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