Failing grade? Trial over Florida’s schools finally starts

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – A showdown over Florida’s public schools that began Monday in a Tallahassee courtroom is expected to delve into whether the changes pushed by Republican governors and a GOP-controlled Legislature over the last two decades helped or hurt the state’s school children.

Education groups and parents from Duval and Pasco counties filed a lawsuit six years ago asserting that the Legislature and state officials have been shortchanging schools. The lawsuit says the result has been most damaging to minorities and students from poor families. The plaintiffs say schools have not gotten what’s required under a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1998.

“Everything is determined by whatever revenue is raised without any thought to what is really needed to once for and all, your honor, turn this system around and get all of our kids educated,” said attorney Neil Chonin in his opening statements.

The legal challenge also takes direct aim at the A to F grading system and use of annual high-stakes standardized tests that were part of the A+ plan put in place by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The plaintiffs maintain this system – along with the use of charter schools and vouchers – means less money to help children in traditional public schools.

Rocco Testani, a private attorney representing the state, maintained that even though Florida schools aren’t “perfect,” test scores show that students, including minorities, have made strides since 1998 and that money wasn’t the answer to improving the state’s schools. He charged that those pushing the lawsuit wanted to “set the clock back” to when Florida’s schools had no accountability.

“Florida has come a very long way from 1998 and remains on a path of continuous improvement,” Testani said.

The case centers on the Florida Constitution’s assertion that providing a “high quality system of free public schools” is a “paramount duty” of the state.

Attorneys for both sides cited statistics and figures in their opening statements to support their positions on whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation.

Chonin noted there’s an achievement gap between white children and minorities when it comes to reading and math, and he said Florida is near the bottom nationally in graduating high school students within four years. He also asserted that statistics show poor children also fare worse than those who come from higher income families.

Testani countered by pointing to improved results by Florida students — including minorities — on a national test given every two years including. He also called comparisons to other states’ graduation rates “meaningless” because some states may calculate it differently.

Over the next few weeks dozens of witnesses are expected to testify including former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, one of the architects of Bush’s A+ plan. He is currently the chancellor of Pennsylvania’s state university system. Other witnesses will include teachers, school superintendents and school funding experts.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds is presiding. Reynolds late last year rejected a request by those who filed the lawsuit to shut down two state-created programs that pay to send children to private schools.

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