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Florida lags in duty to educate our children

Educating children is the most important thing we do.

Education is a fundamental value in our society. We have an obligation, "a paramount duty" to deliver the best possible education to our children.

Can anyone really disagree with these statements? Not only are these statements irrefutable, but these basic principles are also the law in Florida. Ten years ago Florida voters overwhelmingly chose to make education excellence a part of the state Constitution:

"The education of children is a fundamental value of the People of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty to make adequate provision for the education of all children. … Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high-quality education."

As one of the Constitution Revision Commission members who helped draft this language and put it before the voters, I believe the citizens of Florida meant what they said when they approved it. A high-quality education is a fundamental value and a central duty of the state. What has happened since this provision became part of our Constitution? Do we have a high-quality public education system?

First, let me be clear. This is not a partisan failure or a partisan issue. If the system has failed, it is everyone's fault and everyone's duty to fix it. This is an issue of fundamental values.

A decade ago, the state funded about 60 percent of the cost of public schools. Today it is only funding 42 percent.

If education is a paramount duty, why are local property taxpayers footing most of the bill? This issue is not only about the amount of money, it is about the responsibility and accountability of the state. It is the state's paramount duty.

Where does Florida stand in terms of high quality?

• 41st in the nation in per pupil expenditures.

• 50th in total public spending on education compared to in-state wealth.

• 30th for average teacher salaries.

• 47th in graduation rates.

According to the Department of Justice, 8.6 percent of Florida high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon (13th worst in the study).

Florida is the second-worst state in terms of teachers being threatened or assaulted by students. During 2007-08 there were 2,819 incidents of weapons on school grounds. There were 8,600 instances of battery and 30,412 incidents of fighting on school grounds.

It is hard to look at this data and say we are providing our children a safe and secure, high-quality educational system. But the problem is greater than impersonal statistics demonstrate.

Ask the schoolchildren or parents that are asked to pay for copy paper and basic classroom supplies in their schools.

Parents and citizens across the state are becoming part of a movement to change this. I say it is a movement because it has been a spontaneous awakening of groups from all corners of the state. There is no partisan agenda here. These groups include Republicans and Democrats, parents, business people and citizens who want to do the right thing. These groups and individuals all understand that there is no "silver bullet." We are at the beginning, and these citizens will not quit until the goal is met. Our state and our nation has to meet these obligations to secure the future for all of us.

All of us want the answer to the fundamental and pressing question: Is our public education system excellent? Has our state met its paramount duty to maintain our fundamental values?

We as citizens are entitled to these answers. We are entitled to ask the courts if the state has fulfilled its constitutional promise to give our children an excellent education.

If the Constitution is not an empty promise, we know the answer.

Jon Mills of Gainesville is a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, former dean of the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida and member of the 1998 Florida Constitution Revision Commission.


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Florida lags in duty to educate our children 11/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 29, 2009 3:30am]
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