The testimony and closing arguments have been made. Now both sides need to put their arguments in a particular format for the judge by April 25th. He then takes the arguments under consideration and will make a ruling. Win or lose, the decision is likely to be appealed.
When you listen to the two sides, a few points stand out:
Quality: Plaintiffs argue Florida does well on NAEP fourth grade reading and math. Minority groups and FRL students are at or near the top in achievement compared to other states. Of course their achievement level is still very low across the country.
The validity of state comparisons is problematic. So few states retain third graders and most states do not fund sending low achieving students to private schools thus Florida has an advantage on fourth grade NAEP tests. If you take the lowest achieving students out of the fourth grade testing pool, it could significantly impact the average scores of those students who remain.
The defense did not dispute the numbers, but argued that regardless of state rankings, the percent of minority students reaching NAEP levels of proficiency is low in all states. One million Florida students (1/2 of all students), moreover, do not read at grade level.
Definition of quality. If a state raises standards on the assumption that increasing standards will pressure schools to improve achievement, is there ever a clear definition of a ‘sufficient’ percentage of students who meet the standards? Raising the bar just ensures that many students will continue to fail. What is an acceptable level of failure? Is it the current fifty percent or should it be more like 3o or 20 percent?
The defense defined quality as ‘continuous progress’. Thus, if test scores go up, the system is working. NAEP was the standard used to show improvement. NAEP scores have stagnated, but Florida’s FRL and minority students do well in national comparisons.
Improvement in achievement was attributed to the quality of teachers and administrators and the pressure from school choice. The plaintiffs argued that improvement is fine, but the achievement is still low. Moreover, a high quality system gives access to All children, not just some. They raised the issue of the state’s responsibility to resolve long standing under performing schools like some of the Pinellas at risk schools. The state, it was argued, has an ineffective turn around plan and allows schools to continue to underserve some students.
Funding: The defense posted charts showing that low income schools tend to get more per student funding than other schools. Data combined local, state, and federal sources. Given that federal funds in the form of Title I allocations are specifically allocated to low income schools, these students’ additional needs are being met. Moreover, when failing schools and high performing schools are compared by matching high poverty/high minority schools. The defense also states that a cost study are not required in the constitution or in statute. The judge demurred that in a limited way it can be implied.
The plaintiffs argued that requirements must be aligned with resources. Currently, they are not. At risk students enter school with problems that are centered in the home and need special assistance e.g. counselors and other support personnel to become ready to learn. School choice, moreover, drains funding from traditional schools and is inefficient since administrative and other costs are duplicated leaving insufficient resources to meet children’s needs.
Legal Arguments: I am not a lawyer, so I can only mention some legal points that came out in the closing arguments. There may be others I did not catch:
- What is the ‘state’? Does it include district school boards as well as the legislature, DOE, and State Board of Education? When the constitution says that it is the paramount duty of the state to provide an efficient, safe, uniform, high quality system, who is the state? If the districts are included, then the share the obligation to meet the constitutional requirement.
- When can the court require the legislature to change policy? Can it tell the legislature how good is good enough for meeting the needs of children? Can the court simply say the system is not high quality and require the state to define what is?
- What is the correct basis for the legal argument? is it a rational basis or must the state comply with specific requirements to provide a high quality education? A Wikipedia explanation stated that it is easier to define a rational basis by what it is not. It is not a genuine effort…to inquire whether a statute does in fact further a legitimate end of government. I found a quote attributed to Thurgood Marshall…the constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws. How Judge Reynolds sees the case may hinge on his interpretation of the legal basis of the case. It reminds me of a saying I have heard often: Is it close enough for government work or do we have to get it right?
Teacher Quality: The plaintiffs argue that 98% of teachers reach the standard of effective or highly effective, yet students do not achieve at acceptable rates. Student achievement is due to much more than the impact of a particular teacher. A highly effective teacher needs the support personnel to be effective with at risk students.
The defense argues that schools have guidance counselors now (many are supporting testing, however). School improvement can be made with effective teachers and principals without additional funding. Teacher effectiveness based on years of experience does not change after three to five years.
School Choice: According to the plaintiffs, school choice is an incentive for public schools to improve by providing parents a means to leave a school that is under performing. The judge stated that there may be a constitutional issue with the MacKay scholarship program. He has previously ruled that the Florida Tax Credit scholarships are constitutional, but there may be a legal issue concerning the financial impact on public education.