Parents Sue Florida to Demand Funding for Safe, Quality Education

A group of determined parents from four counties in Florida is demanding that the state provide a safe and quality school education. The group, which filed a lawsuit against the state in 2009, said the state’s public schools are unsafe, underfunded, inefficient and ineffective.

Florida has twice tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but judges are allowing it to move forward in circuit court. The lawsuit alleges that the state does not devote an adequate share of financial resources for a high-quality school system and gives public money to charter and virtual schools without holding them to the same standards as traditional public schools, according to Kathleen McGrory of The Bradenton Herald.

The group also claims that public school facilities are not secure and need significant upgrades, and that the state education accountability system focuses too much on testing and is not efficient. The lawsuit, if successful, could force the Florida Legislature to overhaul the state education system.

“The (Florida) 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.”

Nearly two decades ago, a coalition of parents filed a similar legal claim focusing on education funding, but the case was rejected by the state Supreme Court because there was no constitutional basis to question the Legislature’s budget decisions.

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.”

According to some published reports, Florida schools are doing great job and are improving. Earlier this year, Education Week magazine ranked Florida’s education system the 6th best in the country — up from a mediocre 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 work force of the future,” Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan said when the report was released in January.

In a separate 2013 report, Education Week said Florida ranked first in the nation in graduating Hispanic students. According to the report, black students in Florida graduate at a far higher percentage than in the rest of the country.

Chonin, who is representing the parents, is hoping that the courts require lawmakers to rethink the public school system and education funding. He, however, does not expect a court order ending choice programs like charter schools.

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

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