Parents and advocates in Florida filed a lawsuit seven years ago against the Florida State Board of Education that challenged the state for its lack of commitment to public education. But this week, a Leon County judge decided that the state had done its job in providing free, high-quality public education to the state's young people.
But supporters of the decision intend to appeal the ruling, which could result in a watershed judgment from the Florida Supreme Court.
The court released a 29-page opinion along with a 179-page "findings of fact" document. At times, Circuit Judge George Reynolds III voiced concerns about student performance in some of the state's districts. But Reynolds added that the plaintiffs did not show that these outcomes could be connected to any errors committed by the Legislature. The judge added that the advocates had not proven that more state funding to school districts would have fixed the problems.
Reynolds did, on the other hand, praise the state's accountability system and its progress in teacher evaluation and training, writes Brandon Larrabee for the Tallahassee Democrat.
"The weight of the evidence shows that the state has made education a top priority both in terms of implementation of research-based education policies and reforms, as well as education funding," Reynolds wrote in the opinion.
Those who brought the suit against the state used a 1998 constitutional amendment as the basis for its complaints. The measure stated that it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." Adequate provision was defined as a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.
But Judge Reynolds explained that it was not the responsibility of the judiciary system to get bogged down in what was inherently a political issue, and it would not be appropriate for him to evaluate the legislative branch under the separation of powers.
One of the organizations involved in the lawsuit, Fund Education Now, will continue to fight, according to Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the group. All the plaintiffs were represented pro bono by the Southern Legal Counsel, a law firm based in Gainesville.
Plaintiffs remained insistent that the state's testing standards are not efficient or consistent and should not be used to evaluate teachers', students', and schools' grades. They added that mandates such as classroom size limits and technology essentials are not funded by the state, which place a heavy burden on local school districts and taxpayers alike.
The Southern Legal Counsel said that when students were tested on the 2014 Florida Comprehensive Assesment Test (FCAT) 2.0 exam for children in third-grade, under half of black pupils and young people who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches were reading at grade level. Fewer than one-third of students learning English or who had disabilities were reading at the appropriate level, reports Deborah Strange for The Gainsville Sun.
However, when ruling on the Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Florida State Board of Education case, Judge Reynolds did agree that there were funding inequalities, but he did not believe the disparities were pressing enough to take action against, writes the Tampa Bay Times' Jeffrey S. Solochek.
"Each side believes the evidence supported their respective positions. This equation is an ancient one and finds its genesis in the natural tensions between labor and management. However, the burden of proof rested upon the Plaintiffs not the Defendants."
The Palm Beach Post's John Kennedy says practically every aspect of Florida's education system was being tried in the case. K-12 funding, private school vouchers, graduation rates, and standardized testing were all challenged in testimony from legal experts supportive of one side or the other.
Many of the changes in question took place during the term of office of Gov. Jeb Bush and have continued to be enhanced by the Republican-led Legislature.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted about the decision:
"Big win for the good guys!"
The ruling was a setback for those working against the state's drive to diversify the traditional school model.