Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Suing to Close the Achievement Gap

In his famous treatise, Alexis De Tocqueville said (paraphrasing) "There is hardly a public question in America that does not eventually become a judicial question."

This story about a lawsuit in Pinellas County Florida whereby black students are suing alleging that the school system is not educating them properly chills to the bone. The achievement gap has finally made the transition from the school board room and classrooms to the court room and the consequences are likely to be disasterous.

More than 20,000 Pinellas black students can stand together against the school system in a lawsuit that alleges they are not being properly educated, a three-judge appeals panel ruled Wednesday.

The decision granting class-action status to the lawsuit sets the stage for an extraordinary legal battle over some of the biggest questions facing American educators today:

How should school districts address the low achievement of black students and disproportionately high number of disciplinary actions against those students? Can school systems alone be held accountable for the problem?

The case is thought to be a one-of-a-kind attempt to get the courts to resolve a complex issue that educators historically have tried to work out in the classroom.

It also raises the specter of the school district deposing scores of children in an effort to prove that the "achievement gap" between black and white children is a matter of individual circumstance and effort, not the fault of the system.

Lawyers for plaintiff William Crowley argue the numbers are so damning they prove a systemwide failure to "meet the needs and requirements of students of African descent."

The lawsuit alleges the district has failed to give every student a "high quality" education, in violation of the Florida Constitution and state law.

Pinellas county is not alone in this fight, at least not yet.

Like many school districts across the United States, Pinellas has a significant achievement gap that can be measured in many ways.

In the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test administered last spring, only 30 percent of Pinellas black students scored at proficient levels in reading - lower than any other minority group. Meanwhile, 63 percent of white students were proficient.

Similarly, 43 percent of black students graduated from Pinellas high schools in 2004 with a standard diploma after four years of study. The graduation rate for white students was 72 percent.

Also, black students are far more likely to be disciplined in Pinellas schools than white students. In 2003 and 2004, about 39 percent of all disciplinary referrals went to black students, who make up only 19 percent of the enrollment.

This tactic will prove to be a massive complication to a problem already complicated enough by issues of race, socioeconomic status and the education system. When a case goes to court, unlike in regular life, there has to be a winner. The court will be forced to declare one party the winner. But who should it be?

On one side of this fight will be those who believe that the governement should do everything to raise the poor and minorities up. On the other side of the fight will be those who argue that education is not just the state providing the instruction but also the role of the student and his/her family in taking personal responsibility for their education. Caught in the middle will be already overburdened school systems struggling to provide a quality education to everyone (and in many cases doing a pretty good job of it) but always facing those who fall behind.

Guy Burns, the prominent Tampa lawyer representing Crowley, said he would welcome a trial.

"I would hope that finally the School Board would try to sit down and talk about this," he said. "Let's get about the business of fixing it and quit the avoidance. ... They spend a lot more time trying to avoid the problem rather than dealing with the problem."

Burns said that he was not sure what the remedy would be but that it was the school district's job under state law to come up with one.

Having not read the compliant, I am not sure of the burden of proof, but I wonder if this is accurate? Normally, when a plaintiff sues, the plaintiff must make a recommendation for corrective action. Thus, Mr. Burns would be responsible for coming up with plan to correct what his clients believe to be an improper system. However, if hte case is brought under a constitutional violation standard, which it may be, this could shift the burden of producing a plan to the schools.

If this case goes to trial, you can be assured that the outcome will force school systems to comply with requirements guaranteed to make court ordered bussing look like a Sunday picnic. Resources will be allocated by judicial fiat, rather than by need or school board policy.

But the problem is not limted to Florida and Pinellas county. Rest assured the plaintiffs bar across the country is watching this case closely. If the case suceeds, other lawsuits will follow. Instead of organic change or legislated change, which is how school systems should change, we could find ourselves in a country whose education system is run by judges and lawyers--not a good combination.

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