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Lawsuit Targets Public Education in Florida

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In this country, it’s not at all uncommon to hear about lawsuits being aimed at public schools. The institutions themselves are practically set up for these types of problems, given the challenge ahead of them. However, one lawsuit in Florida is definitely different than the typical kind you’re probably used to hearing about. If successful, the lawsuit could fundamentally change how public education is administered to students and funded.

The Heart of the Matter

At the core of this lawsuit is the claim that the state of Florida’s education system has failed to provide a quality education to its students. By using graduation rates as one of the main metrics to go by, the suit seeks to prove that minorities and the poor are at an automatic disadvantage that isn’t being addressed.

Specifically, African American students and those whose parents don’t speak English as their primary language fall behind in Florida public schools. This is according to H. Richard Milner who serves as the director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He will also be an expert witness for the plaintiffs.

A Constitutional Amendment in Play

Those bringing the lawsuit forward are pinning it on a constitutional amendment that was passed back in 1998. It declared that the education of children was a “fundamental value” and requires that the government make education a “paramount duty” meaning it “make(s) adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools” within “an efficient, safe, secure and high quality system.”

While this may seem like plain English, one of the main obstacles ahead of this suit is that that amendment doesn’t go into detail about what the state must do to fulfill this requirement.

The Case for the Plaintiffs

For their part, the plaintiffs will make their case not just with experts from around the nation, but also by using statistics that conclusively prove Florida ranks amongst the lowest states in the entire country for per-pupil funding. That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The group will also get a lot of help from Neil Chonin, an attorney who brings 54 years to the table. Although he retired from his firm in Miami to work for Southern Legal Counsel—a nonprofit law firm that serves the public interest in Gainesville—he will lead a three attorney team against the state.

Despite his experience, Chonin described the case as a “David versus Goliath” situation as they’ll be opposed by the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The Case for the Defense

While the office has not issued a statement regarding the case, a spokeswoman from the Department of Education has said that the state “has had historic K-12 funding for the last two years.”

Governor Rick Scott has said the same thing, but Politifact Florida disputes its accuracy, citing that per-student spending is currently lower than it was back in 2007 and 2008. When accounting for inflation, they state that the number is actually a lot lower.

In any case, the defense is likely going to make the argument that some areas are going to naturally underperform. There are also other statistics that seem to show Florida’s education system has been a success. Graduation rates are actually up 18% since 2003 and 2004. It’s actually 22% for black and Hispanic students too.

While the trial is expected to last five weeks, the outcome will have far-reaching effects for years to come. Even if the plaintiffs don’t succeed, this definitely puts a lot of pressure on politicians to start showing success where education is involved. On the other hand, if the suit is successful, the way public education is funded in Florida will fundamentally change.


Florida education on trial; Lawsuit seeks to redefine public education to benefit poor