At virtually every turn, Gov. Rick Scott and the rest of the state's Republican leadership have treated the federal government as Florida's enemy, filing lawsuits on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, fighting over Medicaid funding and contesting federal clean air regulations. But recent episodes in St. Petersburg and Tampa are reminders of the role the federal government has in ensuring equal protection in communities across America — and especially in places such as Florida, where state and local officials can be negligent if not outright hostile in guaranteeing constitutional rights.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's call this week for a federal review of the inequitable funding and education issues in five failing south St. Petersburg elementary schools that are predominantly black and poor is an appropriate reaction to a Tampa Bay Times investigation. The federal government certainly has a role to play in ensuring all children, regardless of race and economic status, are treated equally in public schools. The Pinellas School District has failed to deliver on its promises to provide a quality education to these children.
As Castor noted: " 'Separate but equal' in our public schools was deemed unconstitutional over 60 years ago." She asked for a review of whether the schools had been shortchanged. She raised serious questions about the use of federal dollars that were intended to provide extra resources to poor students who needed them.
In Tampa, the city invited the Justice Department to review practices at the Tampa Police Department after the Times found that 80 percent of those ticketed for offenses while riding bicycles were black. The city has defended the practice, which amounts to nothing more than street-level harassment of minorities. In the months that followed the Times report, the city has significantly reduced the ticketing of black bicyclists. And it vows to adhere to the Justice Department's recommendations on how, moving forward, the city can carry on its crime-fighting mission without compromising the rights of minorities to travel and assemble in public.
These local actions come as the New York Times reported Thursday that the federal government had become more active in recent years in intervening in local cases where civil liberties were at issue. From protecting the rights of blind people, prisoners and transgender students, the Justice Department has sent the signal that discrimination anywhere is anathema to the principles and laws of the entire country. The Justice Department also should pay close attention to the ongoing redrawing of congressional and state Senate districts in Tallahassee. While the U.S. Supreme Court recklessly gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and Florida is no longer required to have new districts pre-cleared by the Justice Department, the essence of the voting rights law remains and should be enforced to ensure that minority voters are treated equally under the U.S. Constitution.
The federal government has spent an inordinate amount of time in recent years protecting voting rights, water quality and other aspects of life that have come under attack in Florida. This state and this community needs Washington to continue to keep a watchful eye and protect the best interests of all Floridians, from civil rights to public education. The federal government is not the enemy.