High Dropout Rates Evidence Of A Violation Of Florida Constitution
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WEST PALM BEACH, FL – Poor graduation rates in Palm Beach County, Florida demonstrate a failure by state officials to ensure that all students receive a high quality education as mandated by the Florida Constitution, according to a class action lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida. At least a third – and possibly as many as half – of Palm Beach County's students do not graduate on time with a regular diploma, well below both state and national averages.
"Palm Beach County is clearly not upholding its responsibility to provide a quality education to all of its students when so many of them are not graduating," said Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. "The problem in Palm Beach County is reflective of a broad national problem of poor graduation rates, and state officials must be held accountable for failing our children."
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of parents and students in Palm Beach County, charges that state officials violate the state's constitutional requirement that all students receive a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality" free public education. The ACLU is not seeking any specific remedies, only that the school district improve its graduation rates without pushing students out of the system. The lawsuit also seeks to put in place a uniform and reliable graduation rate calculation that accurately accounts for every student enrolled in Palm Beach County's high schools. Currently, the Florida Department of Education uses inaccurate and inflated graduation rate measures.
The Palm Beach School District has 170,215 students in 186 schools, and graduation rates that varied between 56 percent and 71 percent in 2006, depending on the methodology used to perform the calculations.
Florida's "self-reported" numbers indicate that approximately two-thirds of students graduate, but those numbers currently include students who do not receive a standard diploma. Further inflating the numbers, students who repeat a grade are counted with their graduating class rather than the class with which they entered school.
Additionally, a significant disparity exists between the graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students and those of white students. For the past five years, the gap between black and white graduation rates has remained approximately 30 percentage points, while the gap between Hispanic and white graduation rates has been about 20 percentage points. According to the ACLU's legal challenge, the stark difference in graduation rates along racial lines is evidence enough of the school district's constitutional violations. The lawsuit, however, aims to improve the graduation rates for all students enrolled in Palm Beach County.
"It is imperative that there be accountability when students are not afforded their constitutional right to a high quality public education," said Muslima Lewis, Director of the ACLU of Florida's Racial Justice Project. "All students, regardless of their age, race, special needs, ethnicity or gender, deserve an environment that breeds success, not failure."
Graduation rates are not just a problem in Palm Beach, but throughout the country. School districts with similar demographics as Palm Beach's perform substantially better, proving that Palm Beach County, too, can do better. In 2004, for example, the school systems in Maryland's Baltimore and Montgomery Counties and Virginia's Fairfax County had graduation rates of over 80 percent. Accordingly, Palm Beach County's low high school graduation rate and the disparity between the graduation rate of African-American and Hispanic students and that of white students cannot be attributed to socio-economic status, immigrant status or student transfers to private schools.
A high-quality education is the cornerstone for success, as evidenced by the fact that in 2001 the unemployment rate for dropouts 25 years old and over was 75 percent higher than for high school graduates. A study released last month by Northeastern University shows that one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.
A circuit court judge dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2008 against Palm Beach County education officials, saying it named the wrong defendant without ruling on the merits of the case.
Aho et al. vs. Charlie Crist et al. was filed in the Circuit Court of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, Florida. Attorneys in the class action lawsuit include Hansen and Vanita Gupta of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Lewis of the ACLU of Florida, Deborah N. Archer of the New York Law School Racial Justice Project and ACLU Cooperating attorney Ramona Hupp.
A copy of today's lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/aho-et-al-vs-state-florida-et-al-class-action-complaint
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice
Additional information about the ACLU of Florida is available online at: www.aclufl.org
Additional information about the New York Law School Racial Justice Project is available online at: www.nyls.edu/pages/5368.asp