Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Demand for Quality Education in Florida Public Schools

By Michelle Nguyen
Florida, a state with one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, is also a state with one of the strongest constitutional provisions for protecting the right to education.

In 1998, voters demonstrated their commitment to Florida public schools by approving an amendment to the state’s constitution that established a uniquely high standard for public education in Florida. The amendment to Article IX Section 1 holds that the state has a “paramount duty” to adequately provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

While this amendment may stand in stark contrast to the realities of public education in Florida, it has created a potential avenue for citizens to hold their state accountable in honoring the human right to education.

The Realities of Public Education in Florida

More than a decade after the 1998 amendment, the Florida public school system is still far from meeting the uniform, high quality standards set forth by the state constitution. According to the state’s standardized testing scores from 2012, almost half of the students enrolled in public schools are not performing at grade level or higher in either reading or math, suggesting a serious lack of quality education. The test scores further suggest highly unequal education levels and achievement gaps between different income and racial groups: white students performed significantly better than black students, and students not qualifying for free or reduced lunch performed considerably better than those that did qualify (i.e. students from families with higher incomes performed better than those from lower income families).

Reading Scores at Grade Level or Higher
Math Scores at Grade Level or Higher
Black Students
White Students
Qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch
Not Qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch

When compared to the rest of the nation, Florida’s education standards are even more dismal. According to the Lawton Chiles Foundation, Florida is ranked 43rd in the nation for high school graduation rates, 48th in ACT standardized test scores, and 42nd in state spending on education. Only 3.1 percent of the state’s resources are spent on education.

A New Hope for Public Education

While Florida education and achievement levels continue to flounder, concerned citizens and activists are pushing new methods to hold the state accountable for improving education. According to hopeful advocates like Neil Chonin, an attorney for the Southern Legal Counsel, the 1998 amendment has opened a unique gateway for activism through litigation.

“Each state has different constitutional provisions regarding education,” said Chonin, “and ours is one of the very few in the country that contain the language to allow for legal action.”

In November 2009, a group of private citizens along with two education-focused nonprofits decided to take advantage of the strong language found in the 1998 amendment and moved to demand their right to quality public education once and for all. With the help of Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit public interest firm, these concerned parents, students, and general community members filed a formal lawsuit against the State Board of Education for failing to provide students with a uniform, high-quality public school system.

“Our goal is to gather enough evidence and ask the court to declare that the current education system in Florida is unconstitutional,” said Chonin. “Our markers and ranks are horrible. The achievement gap is terrible. We want to win. We feel the state should remedy the situation.”

The case, known as Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, is currently the only lawsuit in Florida that makes a concerted effort to bring the right to quality education to the forefront of state government concerns, while also demonstrating that citizens can and should hold their governments accountable.

The Florida Supreme Court finally authorized the case to proceed in December 2011, after denying a number of attempts made by government agencies to dismiss the case. Other cases that posed similar complaints against the State of Florida were eventually dismissed, because of procedural loopholes and technicalities.

In light of this history, the authorization of this case by the Florida Supreme Court was seen as a huge step forward. As Mark McGriff, spokesman for Citizens for Strong Schools, stated in a press release: “We’re thrilled with the ruling. It means state leaders can’t prevent us from having our day in court.”

Public Education as a Human Rights Concern

While Southern Legal Counsel will primarily center its arguments on the constitutional language found in the 1998 amendment, the issue of public education in Florida could also be examined using an international human rights framework. The human right to education has been recognized by a number of international human rights conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

According to the ICESCR’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, nations have a fundamental duty to provide education that is available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable. Florida’s low-quality education and unequal achievement scores across different race and income groups indicate a potential breach in these requirements, especially the stipulations that education is acceptable in terms of quality and without discrimination.

The ICESCR also requires that education be acceptable in terms of cultural appropriateness. This requirement is especially relevant in examining the status of public education in Florida because of the state’s cultural diversity. According to these human rights standards, the state should be particularly sensitive and accommodating to ensure that the education available to Florida’s diverse immigrant populations is acceptable. However, according to standardized testing scores from 2012, only 10 percent of the eighth grade students enrolled in ELL curriculum (Curriculum for English Language Learners) can read at grade level or higher, and only 23 percent can do math at grade level or higher.

These incredibly low percentages suggest that the specialized curriculum aimed at instructing nonnative speakers may not be meeting the educational needs of these children.

A Pathway to Advocacy

If successful, Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education could be a major step forward in the fight for high quality education in Florida. In the Southern Legal Counsel’s formal complaint they noted that the state has responsibilities in educational policymaking, budgeting, operation, and supervision that it has not fulfilled to meet the education amendment standards. By explicitly identifying these responsibilities and holding the state accountable through the tool of litigation, this case has the opportunity to strengthen and legitimize the fight for better education policies in the future.

In other words, if the case is successful in officially declaring Florida’s school system as “unconstitutional,” it will provide a firmer ground for advocates to demand real changes that will improve the education system, and transform it into a constitutional one. And by achieving this uniquely high constitutional standard for public education, Florida will also be well on its way to meeting international human rights standards for public education.

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