Law & Courts

Fla. School District Sued Over Low Graduation Rates

By Christina A. Samuels — March 21, 2008 4 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class action against the Palm Beach County, Fla., school district, claiming its low graduation rate is a violation of the Florida Constitution.

Even using the “most generous” measures, the lawsuit says, almost a third of the students in the 175,000-student district do not graduate. The graduation rates of black and Hispanic students, which are lower than those of white students, further establish that the district is failing its students, it says.

“And, the consequences for the students and the county are devastating, as those who leave school without even a high school diploma are significantly less able or likely to share in the American dream,” says the lawsuit, filed March 18 in Palm Beach County circuit court.

Christopher Hansen, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation in New York City, said Florida voters in 1998 strengthened the state’s constitutional guarantees of a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality” public education as part of a larger governance overhaul. In many other states, courts have determined that constitutional language about education is unenforceable, he said.

The lawsuit asks that the court require the district to adopt an accurate definition of graduation rates. It also asks that the district be required to improve both the overall graduation rate and the rates for minority students, low-income students, and English-language learners, starting with the 2008-09 school year.

Gaps Cited

Muslima Lewis, the director of the ACLU of Florida’s Racial Justice Project, said the groundwork for the legal action began a year ago, with meetings with parents whose children weren’t doing well in school.

“The students and parents of Palm Beach County are just as deserving as the parents and students of any other district,” Ms. Lewis said.

Superintendent Arthur C. Johnson said the system recognizes the graduation-rate gap between minority and white students, and is working hard to address it with initiatives geared to improving graduation rates for all students.

The district’s enrollment is 42 percent white, 28.6 percent black, and 22 percent Hispanic.

According to the lawsuit, the graduation rate for black students is 29 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for white students. The graduation rate for Hispanic students is 20 percentage points lower than for white students.

“We don’t have the same playing field among all our students, and that’s the challenge,” Mr. Johnson said. “When you have students who don’t have the 24/7 nurturing that some students have, a lot of their schooling is undone by their more worldly education.” Mr. Hansen said such an argument doesn’t deflect the responsibilities of the Palm Beach County district.

“To say that the county sends us defective kids, and we do the best we can, I find unpersuasive and offensive,” he said. “Their job is to educate all the children.”

The ACLU lawyers had been in discussions with district officials over the issue, Mr. Johnson said. Anticipating legal action, the school board recently voted to obtain outside counsel.

The lawsuit is particularly difficult to understand, the superintendent said, because Palm Beach County is doing better on its graduation rate than almost every other urban district in the state. “It almost didn’t matter what we did, because they were looking for a model case,” Mr. Johnson said. “We want the same things. But I cannot be supportive of selective enforcement.”

Hard to Calculate

One of the major issues cited in the lawsuit is the varying methods that can be used to calculate the district’s graduation rate. It outlines three methods, each measuring different school years, and each yielding different results. But the lawsuit does not say which method the plaintiffs would like the district to use.

Under Florida’s method, the district had a graduation rate of 71.4 percent for the 2006-07 school year, the lawsuit notes.

Another calculation method—developed by Sherman Dorn, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa—attempts to correct for what the ACLU deems inaccuracies in the state’s reporting method. According to Mr. Dorn’s calculations, the district’s graduation rate was 58.1 percent for the 2005-06 school year, compared with 69.3 percent reported to the state by the district.

A third measure, the Cumulative Promotion Index, was developed by Christopher B. Swanson, now the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The center is an arm of the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week, and its research on graduation rates is used in the newspaper’s annual Diplomas Count report.

That index showed an overall graduation rate for Palm Beach County of 56.1 percent in the 2003-04 school year, the lawsuit says.

None of the methods is entirely accurate, the lawsuit says. But other Florida districts of similar size to Palm Beach County appear to have better graduation results, it says. For example, using the CPI method and information gathered for the 2003-04 school year, the Hillsborough County district had a graduation rate of 75.1 percent, and Orange County had a rate of 65.6 percent. Palm Beach’s rate for that year was 56.1 percent.

Gary Orfield, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, a racial-justice organization that is housed at UCLA, said that it may be difficult for the ACLU to prove its case. “But, there’s a big history of using lawsuits to expose inequity,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Fla. School District Sued Over Low Graduation Rates

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