For true education adequacy, empower parents

The recent Florida adequacy lawsuit decision by Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds provides a window into the power struggles within public education and the constitutional contradictions that need to be resolved if public education is to achieve excellence and equity.

The lawsuit, which Reynolds dismissed, was originally designed to force state government to provide more funding to school districts. It was expanded last year to curtail school choice programs such as charter schools, tax credit scholarships for low-income children and vouchers for special needs students – an action that would reduce parents’ influence on how funds are spent on behalf of their children. What these choice programs have in common is that they provide students access to schools that are not owned and managed by school districts and controlled by teacher union collective bargaining agreements.

While the case was spearheaded by a public-interest law firm on behalf of a few parents and activists, the alliances that emerged in the witness lists and courtroom testimony of this Florida case are being replicated in political and legal battles across the country. State governments and low-income parents on one side. School boards, district administrators and teacher unions on the other. Their disagreements revolve around the distribution of power.

Most parents want to have more control over how their children are educated, while school districts and teacher unions oppose this decentralization, fearing it will diminish their power.

This raises fundamental questions, both for advocates who argued Florida’s educational system is constitutionally inadequate, and for those who felt vindicated by Reynolds’ findings that the situation is getting better.

If improving educational outcomes is the goal, should the state constitution empower the system, by giving more money and power to districts and their administrators, or should it empower parents and students directly? Should our constitution define a high-quality education solely as the government’s obligation, or should it be defined, first and foremost, as a right of every parent and child?

Florida’s constitution distributes power over public education in contradictory ways. Article IX, Section 1 states that public education is the “paramount duty of the state” and that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” Article IX, Section 4 requires counties to have local school boards, and that these boards “operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”

In other words, state government is responsible for providing high quality public schools, but state government doesn’t own or operate these schools. Local school boards do. This fact was a key reason why Judge Reynolds rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that state government was failing to meet its constitutional responsibilities.

The Court also concludes that local school boards, pursuant to their constitutional responsibility to ‘operate, control and supervise’ schools and to ‘determine the rate of school district taxes’ in support of schools, are ‘part of the state system of public education’ and play a very important role in delivering education in Florida. To the extent that Plaintiffs complain about particular levels of student performance or the availability of resources in particular schools, those are matters within the authority of local school boards. Generally, the State cannot be held liable for ineffective operational, control, and supervisory decisions at the local level.

Florida’s constitution is silent on the responsibilities of parents, implying that state government and local school districts are solely responsible for educating our children. Students and their needs are relegated to a lone subordinate clause (“… that allows students to obtain a high quality education”). Educators aren’t mentioned at all, save for provisions limiting public-school class sizes.

In his ruling, Reynolds also observed that Florida law cannot guarantee quality educational outcomes for every child in the state. And this is why civil-rights lawsuits aimed at improving public education so often struggle to achieve their intended results: Whatever the courts decide, the remedy must be passed through multiple layers of education bureaucracy.

Here’s our take: The most effective guarantee of educational excellence and equity will come not from placing new obligations on the government. It will come from placing more power directly in the hands of parents and teachers.

Parents and legal guardians deserve access to the learning options that best meet the individual needs of each child. Educators should have the right to meet each child’s diverse learning needs in the best way possible — including the right to launch new schools that are eligible for public funding. State and local government should be responsible for creating an environment where those rights are fulfilled.

We envision every child covered by Florida’s mandatory school attendance law having a customized learning plan. These plans would be developed collaboratively by parents and professional educators. Each plan would have an annual cost associated with it (based on the student’s family income, special needs, status as an English language learner, and other factors). A customized, high quality education would be the right of every child, and the primary responsibility of their parents or legal guardians.

School boards would be responsible for regulating a system of high quality learning options that are efficient, safe, secure, and capable of meeting the individual learning needs of each child in the district. State government would be responsible for helping fund and regulate this system in ways that help ensure excellence and equal opportunity for each child, and for defining parental rights and responsibilities in greater detail.

Much of Florida’s current constitutional language on education came into being nearly 20 years ago, when the state last went through its constitutional revision process. Public-school advocates had just lost a major education funding lawsuit in court, and they wanted to create a set of standards that were legally enforceable. The new adequacy lawsuit is not over, since supporters say they plan to appeal. But in his trial-court ruling, Reynolds expressed skepticism that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could possibly bring about the improvements they sought. He questioned whether cost studies could really determine the true educational needs of a diverse state like Florida, and whether giving school districts more money would really bring about meaningful improvements for students.

Legal scholars have hinted for decades at a better path. An emerging legal doctrine would define educational rights for parents and children, and its time may finally have come.

We now have about 150 years of evidence that suggests the current path empowers centralized government bureaucracies and disempowers teachers, parents and students – an approach that undermines excellence and equity in public education. We need to redistribute power in ways that more fully engage parents, teachers and students, while effectively and efficiently furthering the public good.

This is the political struggle that is being waged in state capitals and courtrooms across the country.

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