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  1. Education

Lawsuit aims to increase Florida education funding

Published Oct. 7, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — A group of determined parents from four Florida counties say the state's public schools are unsafe, underfunded, inefficient and ineffective.

These parents from Alachua, Duval, Orange and Pasco have not taken their case to the court of public opinion — they have been fighting in court since 2009.

Their lawsuit, alleging that Florida lawmakers are shortchanging schoolchildren, is now moving forward. If successful, they could force the Florida Legislature to overhaul the state's education system.

"The Constitution makes it the paramount duty of the state to provide an efficient, safe, secure and uniform high-quality education," said Neil Chonin, a Gainesville-based public-interest attorney representing the parents. "I'm firmly convinced the Legislature and the (state) Board of Education are ignoring that."

The Attorney General's Office and the state Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A procedural hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

This isn't the first time parents have questioned whether lawmakers are doing enough for Florida's schools. Nearly two decades ago, a coalition of parents filed a similar legal claim focusing on education funding. But the state Supreme Court rejected the case, saying there was no constitutional basis to question the Legislature's budget decisions.

Much has changed since then.

In 1998, voters approved a constitutional amendment designating education "a paramount duty of the state," and requiring state officials to provide "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

Prior to the change, the Constitution only required that "adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform system of free public schools."

"The (new) provision was drafted very specifically to allow litigation," said former House Speaker Jon Mills, who sat on the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission and is now partnering with Chonin on the lawsuit.

Florida's updated education clause is considered among the strongest in the country. In a 2006 opinion striking down school vouchers, state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that the provision imposes "a maximum duty on the state to provide for public education" that meets the standards.

The parents hope to show Florida has failed on all counts. Among their claims:

• The state does not devote an adequate share of financial resources for a high-quality school system.

• The state gives public money to charter and virtual schools without holding them to the same standards as traditional public schools.

• Public school facilities are not secure and need significant upgrades.

• The state's education accountability system focuses too much on testing and is not efficient.

• The state graduation rate (73 percent) and persistent achievement gap prove that the system is not high quality.

"We remain some of the lowest-funded school districts in the nation, and are also witnessing the creation of separate and unfair systems of public education," said Kathleen Oropeza, whose parent advocacy group Fund Education Now is among the plaintiffs.

Some published reports, however, show that Florida schools are improving.

This year, Education Week magazine ranked Florida's education system sixth-best in the country, up from 31st in 2007.

"(The) report shows that the education reform policies of the past decade have created a system that will prepare our students for the global workforce of the future," Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan said when the report was released in January.

While Florida earned points for its system of standards, assessments and accountability, it fared near the bottom in terms of student achievement and school funding.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart played down the funding issue in January: "What matters most is not how much we spend, but how we spend the dollars we allocate." State education officials have also pointed to improvements in the graduation rate. In a separate 2013 report, Education Week said Florida ranked first in the nation in graduating Hispanic students. The report also said black students in Florida graduate at a far higher percentage than in the rest of the country.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2009, the state has twice tried to have it dismissed. But judges are allowing it to move forward in circuit court.

Chonin, who is representing the parents, said he is hopeful the courts will require lawmakers to rethink the public school system and education funding.

He does not foresee a court order ending choice programs like charter schools, he said.

"It would be virtually impossible to abolish charter schools," he said. "Our position is that there should be an even playing field."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.

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