Second lawsuit attacks Florida school funding

AP News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2009 8:11 AM

State officials are facing a second lawsuit filed in as many weeks accusing them of shortchanging public schools in violation of a state constitutional provision requiring a "high quality" education for Florida's children.

Several parents and two advocacy groups _ Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now _ sued Wednesday in state Circuit Court here.

"This suit simply asks the question: 'Do we have high quality education in this state today?' and asks the court to answer that question," said former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills, who is part of the plaintiffs' legal team.

The suit also argues the answer to that question is no.

"There's a lot of evidence that we are not in the top echelon," said Mills, also former dean of the University of Florida's law school.

The suit contends the state isn't spending enough money on public schools, but it asks only that the court order legislative leaders and education officials to come up with a plan to meet the high quality requirement.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar complaint Nov. 5 that the state violated the constitutional provision in Palm Beach County, citing low graduation rates there.

The Tallahassee suit is statewide in scope. It also cites low graduation rates as well as Florida's low rankings in education spending and teacher pay and a high rate of school violence.

"Obviously those people are well intended and I would encourage them to help us do better for Florida's kids," said Gov. Charlie Crist, but he said he wasn't sure that he agreed with their argument.

Crist is one of several defendants in the Palm Beach County case, but not the Tallahassee suit. It was filed against the State Board of Education, Education Commissioner Eric Smith, House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

"It's unfortunate that this lawsuit diminishes the significant progress that has been made by our children over the last decade and simply ignores the performance of a state that is clearly outpacing the nation," Smith said.

He cited national assessment tests showing Florida students have made overall gains, particularly black and Hispanic students who have narrowed the achievement gap with whites.

Spokeswomen for Cretul and Atwater said they had not yet been served with the suit and as a rule do not comment on pending litigation.

Crist has been boasting that Florida's schools ranked 10th nationally this year with a B-minus on the Quality Counts report issued annually by Education Week.

"This lawsuit was filed so that we can make a record and let's see if what he's saying is actually correct," said Neil Chonin of Southern Legal Counsel, a public interest law firm in Gainesville.

Besides Mills, a Democrat, the legal team also includes E. Thom Rumberger, a Republican attorney from Tallahassee and several other lawyers.