Florida’s public schools weathered budget cuts during the Great Recession, but student performance continued to improve. It’s been a “leader” in the national movement for school accountability. Tax credit scholarships and a voucher program for special-needs students don’t hurt public schools, and may help make the system better. Same for charter schools, which continue to serve more children.
Few states have more children earning college credits while they’re still in high school. Achievement gaps between white students and their African-American peers are narrower than in the nation as a whole. And when the state sets more demanding academic standards, student achievement tends to rise.
Those were among the findings Leon County Judge George Reynolds made this afternoon in more than 200 pages of legal documents, in which he dismissed, in its entirety, a wide-ranging lawsuit taking aim at two decades of education reform.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs told media outlets they intend to appeal the ruling.
The seven-year-old lawsuit began as a bid for funding “adequacy,” claiming the Florida Legislature had under-funded public schools and saddled them with mandates, in violation of the state constitutional provisions requiring the state to provide “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”
Two years ago, the plaintiffs broadened their claims, morphing the case into a wide-ranging attack on education policies from private school choice and public charter schools to state accountability statutes.
In a 29-page legal opinion accompanied by a voluminous appraisal of public education in the state, Reynolds dismissed the case on all counts, noting that the nuances of education policy did not lend themselves to “judicially manageable standards.”
But he also found the funding and policy decisions targeted by the lawsuit were defensible.
“The weight of the evidence shows that the State has made education a top priority,” Reynolds wrote.
He went on to conclude: “The Court finds, based on the evidence presented, that there is not a constitutional level lack of resources available in Florida schools. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, it simply means that there is not a constitutional level crisis sufficient to warrant judicial intervention.”
The plaintiffs in the case, who include a range of parent and activist groups, said they intend to continue the legal battle in appellate court, according to the Gainesville Sun.
“Even though Florida’s constitution is the strongest educational mandate of all the states, the court incorrectly concluded that the constitution has no judicially manageable standards and that the court is prohibited from ordering relief due to separation of powers,” Southern Legal Counsel Executive Director Jodi Siegel wrote in a prepared statement. “Southern Legal Counsel plans to appeal this decision and continue to seek a high quality education for all children in Florida.”
Reynolds found the plaintiffs did not show “any causal relationship between any alleged low student performance and a lack of resources,” and didn’t demonstrate that more money would lead to improvements.
While plaintiffs claimed that school choice options undermine the state’s public education system – and particularly the constitutional requirement for a uniform public-school system – Reynolds rejected claims against tax credit scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools, McKay Scholarship vouchers for children with special needs, and privately operated public charter schools.
“[T]he Court finds no negative effect on the uniformity or efficiency of the State system of public schools due to these choice programs, and indeed, evidence was presented that these school-choice programs are reasonably likely to improve the quality and efficiency of the entire system,” Reynolds wrote.
The judge had already decided that plaintiffs in both the adequacy case and a separate, direct challenge on tax credit scholarships did not have legal standing to challenge the nation’s largest private school choice program. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary, helps administer the scholarships.)
As for charter schools, Reynolds noted that school boards supervise them, and have the ability to shut them down for poor performance. Charters in Florida serve a student population comparable to the one served by traditional public schools, and achieve similar academic performance with lower per-student funding.
“[C]harter schools in Florida are no less efficient, and on average are actually more efficient, than Florida’s traditional public schools,” he wrote.
What’s more, he indicated that the continued growth of charter schools in the state, which now number more than 650, indicates that some school operators are satisfied with funding levels in the state.
Please check back for updates on this developing story.