Florida Public Education Lawsuit with Potential National Implications Begins Today

PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan expected to testify in defense of Jeb era education policy

Today marks the start of a five-week Florida court case that could have national implications about how public schools are funded. Citizens for Strong Schools v. the Florida State Board of Education may also serve as the first substantive blow against right-wing led efforts to privatize public schools through the two-pronged policy of cutting school budgets and deploying high-stakes testing to grades some schools as failing.

The non-profit, investigative news site Floridabulldog.org first broke the story last week that the case was slated to go to trial this week. As we reported, the plaintiffs in the case argue that the way Florida funds its schools is unconstitutional because of systemic inequalities in funding that disproportionately impact poor and minority communities. This is the first case that will a 1998 amendment to the Florida constitution. The amendment declared that

the education of children to be a fundamental value of the people of Florida; establishes adequate provision for education as a paramount duty of the state; expands constitutional mandate requiring the state to make adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools by also requiring the state to make adequate provision for an efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system.

The lawsuit puts more than a decade of “education reform” enacted by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and current Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Frank Brogan, who served as Bush’s Commissioner of Education and Lieutenant Governor. As we detailed in our previous story, Frank Brogan is expected to testify in defense of the State of Florida. He will be defending a system that he helped author and institute as a long-time advocate of school vouchers, privatization, and high stakes standardized testing.

H. Richard Milner, Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert witness testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Floridabulldog that ““schools in Florida are largely still not integrated, with rich white communities providing far better education than poor black schools. There are still major inequities in public education in Florida, and this lawsuit threatens to expose that.”

The Florida lawsuit enters the courtroom just a few weeks after the Kansas Supreme Court declared the State’s newly enacted “bloc grant” education funding scheme to be unconstitutional. The bloc grant system was favored by Kansas’s infamous right-wing governor, Sam Brownback, and state’s right-wing dominated legislature.

The Kansas Supreme Court chastised the Florida legislature for enacting an unconstitutional funding scheme that threatens to put the entire 2016-2017 school year in jeopardy:

Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30 [2016]…

…The legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to equitably, i.e. fairly, allocate resources among the school districts not only creates uncertainty in planning the 2016-2017 school year but also has the potential to interrupt the operation of Kansas public schools…[We] must heed our duty to ensure Kansas students receive the education system guaranteed them by the Constitution…

It is certainly much too early to tell if these two cases will be the first shots in a legal push back against the shock doctrine policies of the past decade. Those policies favored by the right-wing extremists have amounted to a war on public education and all public sector institutions. We know that attacks on public education have not been limited to Florida and Kansas. Recall that under Pennsylvania’s former Gov. Corbett, public education was his chosen target for shock and awe – cutting over a billion dollars for K-12 public education and about 20% to the fourteen state-owned universities (PASSHE).

I reached out to H. Richard Milner, the University of Pittsburgh professor who is testifying in the Florida case, to ask him if he sees any similarities between the Florida case and what’s been happening in Pennsylvania, especially over the past 5-10 years. “I do believe there are many similarities,” Milner said. One has to wonder how closely defenders of public education are following the developments in Florida and Kansas.

Support of public education is written into Pennsylvania’s constitution in Article III, Sec. 14.

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

While the Florida and Kansas cases will not have immediate implications for public school funding nationwide, they may very well point the way for a legal strategy to beat back the persistent attacks against public education from right-wing privateers and corporate Democrats.

If the Florida court finds in favor of the plaintiffs, the scramble will be on to remake Florida’s public education funding system. How that will impact the students who were forced into underfunded Florida schools since Jeb Bush and Frank Brogan radically altered the way Florida funds education, remains to be seen. Will we seen a spate of civil lawsuits against those responsible for authoring Florida’s system of vouchers and tying funding to high-stakes testing? We’ll see.

If groups in Pennsylvania do decide to pursue the kind of legal strategy are seeing in Florida, at least we have one of the architects of Florida’s system right down the street in Harrisburg as the head of PASSHE. We will certainly be following Brogan’s Florida testimony closely.

 

 

 

 

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