October 25, 2014

Education

School Blues

Florida Staff | 2/1/2006

Equal Education? William Crowley blames Pinellas County for the district’s education achievement gap. His class-action lawsuit could open the door to similar suits in other counties.
The future of Florida's schools is playing out as much in the courtroom as in the classroom. In one case, school administrators around the state are eyeing a lawsuit against the Pinellas County school system that alleges the district has failed to give black students the "high-quality" education guaranteed by Florida's constitution. Plaintiff William Crowley claims in the suit that his son, Akwete Osoka, "experienced substantial academic difficulties." Crowley blamed the district for the achievement gap between black and white children. Black students in Pinellas fail at a rate double their white counterparts.

Last fall, the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with a ruling by Pinellas Circuit Judge James Case that granted the lawsuit class-action status, meaning more than 20,000 black students in Pinellas can join in.

The Pinellas suit, unrelated to the county's long-running desegregation litigation, involves Florida's Educational Equity Act and Article IX, Section 1, of the Florida Constitution. And it could be just the beginning of a wave of litigation over Article IX, which voters substantially revised and approved in 1998. The provision says, in part, "The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." Moreover, the educational system must be "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality."

Florida's Constitutional Accountability Commission, which was convened in January 2004 to interpret the new clause, recently finished its work. The 29-member commission, co-chaired by Bob Butterworth and Bob Milligan, found that the revision is "clearly enforceable" -- and suggested that the state develop indicators to compare itself with other states to evaluate whether it's delivering "high-quality" education.

Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court has struck down the state's voucher program, which allowed students in failing schools to attend private schools at taxpayer expense. The court's decision will likely produce a counteroffensive by supporters of choice in public education. Gov. Jeb Bush has vowed to pursue plans to keep vouchers alive, including raising money from private sources.

"I think it's a sad day for accountability in our state," Bush said.

Tags: Around Florida, Education

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