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California and Florida K-12 Lawsuits Treat Resources Differently

Two of the five biggest states in the country by K-12 enrollment, California and Florida, are now battlegrounds for either new or evolving lawsuits that focus on the adequacy and use of resources given to schools and in turn to students.

The suit in California is a new one, filed on behalf of students at seven schools in both the Bay Area and southern California on May 29 by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and others. And the Florida suit I'm highlighting is an expanded version of a suit originally filed to target school choice programs. Let's tackle California first.

• The accusations in the suit, Cruz v. State of California, are broad and cover a variety of conditions in schools. The plaintiffs allege that students at underperforming schools receive weeks or even months less learning time than some of their counterparts through "misassigned classes, multiple make-work service periods, high teacher turnover, violence and the lack of counseling support," the ACLU Foundation said in a statement.

The suit also says that students often sit in cafeterias for long periods when they should be in classrooms instead, and when they get to classrooms, many of them encounter substitute teachers far more than students in schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

In an interview, an ACLU attorney, Mark Rosenbaum, cited one of the plaintiffs, Oscar Serranto, who nominally had eigtht classes, but only had two classes where actual academic instruction took place—the rest of time, the suit alleges, Serranto was assigned to menial administrative tasks or left to himself entirely. That sort of situation, Rosenbaum said, shows that the state needs an attitude adjustment regarding these schools, not just more resources.

"These institutions do not represent what we think of as robustly functioning schools," Rosenbaum said. "In many cases, the state is treating these institutions as if they're warehouses, not schools."

Remember, over the past year, California has been working to implement its new Local Control Funding Formula that will significantly increase state aid to schools over the next six years. But this new lawsuit isn't strictly about school finance and funding levels, and indeed the plaintiffs claim that the solution isn't "simply spending more money but using current resources in a manner designed to provide meaningful classroom education." And Rosenbaum said the new funding formula will take too long to implement to help many of the students that are facing the same dire conditions as the Cruz plaintiffs.

• Now for Florida, where there's a stronger direct connection between school finance and the lawsuit. Originally filed in 2009, the legal complaint from Fund Education Now features similar language to many such complaints about K-12 funding adequacy, charging that the state was "breaching its constitutional paramount duty" to provide high-quality, public education. (That was before current Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, took office and made significant reductionsto the public school budget, although he and the legislature have since restored some of those cuts.)

What's new with that lawsuit? It's not a decision, it's that the plaintiffs are seeking to amend their case by taking aim at the state's school choice programs, specifically its tax-credit scholarship programs that have been growing steadily over the last several years.

According to the request, reports Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, the plaintiffs say that the state's pre-kindergarten program has improperly lost out to those school choice programs, which cover both relatively low-income students and those with special educational needs. 

Fund Education Now, along with other groups, are lobbying Scott to veto Senate Bill 850, legislation passed this year that over time would dramatically expand the reach of the tax-credit scholarship program in the state. These groups say the program improperly diverts money to religious schools while hurting special-education students and English-language learners. Florida's scholarship program is the largest in the country, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, so those opposed to the school choice program are taking aim at a high-profile target. 

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