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Florida Failing Its Schoolchildren, High Dropout Rates Violate State Constitution

Tiffany Donnelly,
Racial Justice Program
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November 10, 2009

Last week, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against Florida state officials for violating the state constitution, which guarantees a free “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality” public education to its citizens. In Florida’s Palm Beach County, between one-third and one-half of students do not graduate from high school, depending on the method of calculation used (the most generous, not surprisingly, is Florida’s self-reported method).

In addition to low graduation rates, a significant disparity exists between the graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students and those of white students in Palm Beach County. The stark difference across racial lines is evidence enough of a constitutional violation, but the ACLU lawsuit aims to improve the graduation rates for all students enrolled in Palm Beach County. Our case, Aho v. State of Florida, is novel because the only remedy we seek is a meaningful improvement in Palm Beach County’s graduation rates without pushing students out of the system. The State of Florida and district officials can decide how to best achieve those results.

It is no secret that a quality education exponentially increases one’s chances of success in life. Wayward parents are often blamed for a failing education system, but this lawsuit demonstrates that even parents following every imaginable step to access a quality education are let down by Palm Beach County schools. Beyond that, the school system has a constitutional obligation to educate all students, even those who are not from privileged backgrounds. The district’s graduation rates, which fall well below state and national averages, also cannot be explained by low socioeconomic status, as students in similar and/or worse socioeconomic conditions do far better in other districts.

We understand that Palm Beach County has a difficult job to do. But kids in Florida deserve an environment that promotes opportunity and success and fulfills the constitutional right promised to them, regardless of their race, age, disability, district, and no matter how easy or convenient it is to provide. After all, what good is a constitutional right when it’s left unenforced?

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