The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Friday on behalf of Palm Beach County students and parents, naming Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, House Speaker Larry Cretul, Senate President Jeff Atwater, and Florida Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith as defendants. The suit charges that the State of Florida has failed the county's students, citing as evidence abysmally low high school graduation rates. One-third to one-half of Palm Beach students fail to graduate high school, the suit says, and black students lag far behind whites.
The suit is the first of its kind in the country, said Chris Hanson, ACLU staff attorney, when we spoke to him by phone on Friday. "This is still the only case in the country that makes the argument based on low graduation rates," he said. "We looked around to find a place where the state admitted a constitutional right to adequate education, plus a school district with low graduation rates, and Palm Beach County was one such area."
Hanson added that a 1998 amendement to the Florida Constitution states that the education of children is a fundamental value in Florida. The law further requires that the state make "adequate provision for the education of all children" and that "education must be uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and of high quality."
The plaintiffs -- a handful of Palm Beach County parents and their kids -- were found through a series of meetings held by the ACLU.
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"This is a civil rights case," Hanson said, "because the disparity between rates of graduation [between blacks and whites] is large. But it's not a discrimination case in the broad sense, because we are arguing that no child in Palm Beach receives adequate education when graduation rates are this low."
If the suit is successful, the courts would require that the state provide a clear definition of how graduation rates are tallied. And progress goals would be set. "We would like the judge to create a timeline for specific improvement in the graduation rate -- say, so much percentage improvement over a period of years.
How the state achieves those goals is their problem; we don't want the court involved in those decisions. They have to figure out how to do it.
"I hope the suit serves a practical purpose, because if we are correct and only half of kids are graduating," Hanson said, "this suit could be of enormous benefit to students. I would hope the state would share our view."