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Judge: Lawsuit Against State Over Quality Of Public Schools Can Proceed

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Earlier this year, the state asked a circuit court judge in Leon County to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that it was a "sweeping legal challenge" that trampled on the Florida Legislature's powers to set education budgets and policies.

But Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford has denied that motion, ruling that the plaintiffs can challenge Florida's education efforts based on an amendment voters added to the state constitution in 1998.

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"It's very significant," said Jon Mills, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "This is the first time a Florida court has said the constitution can hold the state accountable for having high-quality public schools."

A similar adequacy lawsuit filed in 1996 was dismissed when a judge ruled the constitution's language was too vague to allow a ruling on school quality. Advocates, including Mills, then pushed for the constitutional amendment that says it is a "paramount" duty of the state to make "adequate provision" for education and to provide a "high quality system of free public schools."

In her ruling, Fulford said the state argument that there can be no legal challenge would "render the citizens' vote to create a new education article as meaningless."

Twelve years ago, 70 percent of Florida's voters approved the education measure that is now Amendment 9 to the state constitution.

The lawsuit argues the amendment's mandates haven't been met because the state's share of school funding has dropped from 62 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2009, high-school graduation rates are low and many students struggle on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

It asks a court to order the state to create a "remedial plan" for fulfilling its constitutional obligations.

"This is important. Her ruling clearly states that the legislature is accountable to the people of the state of Florida and to the constitution of the state of Florida," said Kathleen Oropeza, a mother who helped start the group Fund Education Now and has two children in Orange County public schools.

Fund Education Now, other education advocacy groups and a few parents are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The defendants include the State Board of Education, Education Commissioner Eric Smith, Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders.

The Florida Attorney General's office, which represents the defendants, referred questions about the judge's ruling to the Florida Department of Education, which said it is reviewing its options. In November, Smith called the lawsuit misguided and said it ignored the "significant progress" in student achievement that Florida has made in the past decade.


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Source : http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2010-08-26/news/os-school-lawsuit-fl-20100826_1_public-schools-public-education-adequacy-lawsuit

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