The Florida Constitution requires a "high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high-quality education." A lawsuit filed last week in Tallahassee on behalf of a coalition of public school parents and students claims the state has failed to meet that obligation by not spending enough money, misusing the FCAT, failing to ensure school safety and keeping teacher salaries too low. It points to a number of education measures where Florida ranks well below average, much less high-quality. While the prospects of a court victory are debatable, the lawsuit can galvanize Floridians to demand better and put pressure on the Legislature to respond.
The Legislature has failed to treat the education of Florida's children as the "paramount duty" enumerated in the Constitution. Nine years ago, the state share of public education money was 62 percent, the suit notes. Now it is 44 percent, as lawmakers have shifted more of the burden from the state to local taxpayers. Districts have been coping by cutting programs and reducing staff. Only federal stimulus money has prevented thousands of layoffs and full-fledged cash crisis.
The issue is not simply money. Parents are awakening to the problems of public schools and are learning they must push Tallahassee to do the right thing by their children — by coordinating their efforts regionally, by supporting fair legislative redistricting and by voting for candidates who will be good stewards of public education. Former House Speaker Jon Mills, one of the lawyers who helped prepare the lawsuit, said, "It's in the nature of a movement."
Voters in some districts, including Pinellas, have in recent years raised their own property taxes to show their support for schools. And countless citizens have volunteered to help schools and to mentor students. But the last statewide push by frustrated voters was for the class-size amendment, which made the state spend money on schools but certainly not in the wisest way.
The lawsuit will undoubtedly be a forum for dueling statistics. For example, the plaintiffs note Florida ranks 41st in per pupil spending and 29th in average teacher salaries. The state's graduation rate is too low, and its achievement gap is too wide. But the state will argue that Quality Counts, a widely respected report published by Education Week, rates Florida's public schools 10th overall in the nation. And they will add that Florida's children have been improving in reading, writing and mathematics skills each year and that National Assessment for Educational Progress scores (sometimes called the "nation's report card") show the state's students typically performing at or above the national average.
Lawsuits are not the best way to set public policy, and they aren't always successful. For example, an appellate court has just summarily dismissed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to correct the terrible unfairness of the property tax system created by Save Our Homes. But there are examples where lawsuits have forced Florida to address problems lawmakers should have tackled without judges ordering them to do it. The courts reacted to a lawsuit by prison inmates in the 1970s by setting maximum prison capacities and forcing the state to spend hundreds of millions to reduce overcrowding. And a series of court settlements in the 1990s forced the state to invest millions more in social services and in the care of foster children.
The education lawsuit's backers are smart to consider legal action just one element of their effort to force the state to improve public schools. If it helps rally Floridians around the cause, illuminates education's short-comings and pressures state officials to respond, it will be worth it. But if the idea is to get the courts to order the other two branches of government to act, it will be an awfully long fight that will not help this generation of students.