Florida’s high-stakes school reforms in court

JUSTICE 5

by: Kathleen Oropeza|Guest Columnist Orlando Sentinel

Parents of children in public schools are well aware that the high-stakes testing season is here. What they may not realize is that Florida’s marquee public education trial is under way in Leon County. Pay close attention. This is as big as it gets:

Getting to trial has taken seven long years with the state battling to kill the suit — and I do not exaggerate.

Almost every “education reform” policy imposed by legislators through Florida’s A-F Accountability scheme is on the table. Citizens for Strong Schools, filed in 2009, aims to improve education with positive policy changes and increased funding. Thanks to the herculean pro bono efforts of the Southern Legal Counsel, this is truly a citizen-driven lawsuit.

Fund Education Now is a plaintiff, along with Citizens for Strong Schools and six low-income and minority public-school students, parents and a grandmother. Fund Education Now was formed in 2009 after former Orange County School Superintendent Ron Blocker called cuts to public education “criminal and catastrophic.” What drove us was the absolute lack of answers. Why would politicians de-fund public education and spend billions to grow a high-stakes testing juggernaut while diverting money to separate, unequal and often privately held “choice options”?

Clearly, nothing short of legal action could make a difference. Hostile “reforms” keep coming despite the fact that the Florida Constitution was amended in 1998 by 71 percent of the voters, giving the Legislature specific instructions regarding public education and funding: “(a) The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools…”

We know that the Legislature thinks it has absolute authority to interpret the constitution and should receive complete immunity from its actions. Legislators have treated the state constitution like a menu for a long time, choosing to selectively follow the rules.

We also know that the 2016 per-pupil funding amount of $7,178 — which Gov. Rick Scott dares to trumpet as “historic” — is $52 more than the previous high of $7,126 in 2007-08. Reality: That’s less than $6 per year for the past nine years. None of this accounts for the tens of thousands of additional students since 2007.

A review of spending on a range of education-related items since 2007 reveals a miserly, even stingy funding for Exceptional Student Education, which went from more than $1 billion in 2007 to about $980 million today, according to the Florida School Boards Association.

There’s nothing historic here, just the excruciating pain of standing still.

This trial is for every child who cries over a high-stakes test, who loses the joy of learning because of mind-numbing test-prep curriculum, who learns at the age of 8 that, in the eyes of the state, he or she is considered a loser.

This trial is for every high-school student denied a diploma, in essence being disenfranchised from adulthood because of a system too busy embracing data while it ignores real human beings, our children.

This trial is for every teacher and student disrespected by an intrinsically dishonest, unhelpful high-stakes testing scheme.

This trial is for every parent who knows that bringing in supplies and selling wrapping paper is not optional, that principals depend on fundraisers as a stop-gap budget extender to cover millions of dollars in undocumented school expenses.

Mostly, this trial is for the 2.75 million public schoolchildren who have no high-paid lobbyists in Tallahassee. They have us — the moms and dads tasked with convincing our kids that one test, one day will never define them; that no high-stakes test is worth their tears or their lives.

Politicians with their embarrassing lust for money and power will never understand the greater currency of love.

 

Note: This article by Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza, originally appeared on March 25, 2016, in The Orlando Sentinel.

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