Here’s an op-ed running today on the AJC education page. This provocative piece is by Luis A. Velez, the parent of two children in the Coweta public schools. (Repeating again my request for op-ed submissions for the weekly education page. If you want to submit one, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Op-eds must run with bylines. )
Enjoy this piece:
By Luis A. Velez
A political firestorm regarding public education in Florida may soon hit Georgia.
What do you do if you’re a public school parent who is fed up with the inferior quality of education your children are receiving? How do you deal with budget cuts that are crippling the system and even forcing teachers to beg for essential supplies, like crayons and pencils? If you’re a public school parent in Florida, you sue the state.
The Florida Supreme Court recently made history by holding that the Florida legislature can be held accountable for the quality of the state’s public schools. Specifically, the Court held that citizen-plaintiffs had stated a claim worth pursuing at trial, namely, that the Florida legislature is violating its “paramount duty” to provide and fund a “high quality” system of free public schools, as required by Article IX, Section 1 of Florida’s Constitution.
The Florida lawsuit promises to be instructive to Georgians on several fronts. First, Florida’s “paramount duty” to provide a “high quality” public education for its children sets one of the highest standards for state support of public schools in the nation. Most states only guarantee an “efficient” system of public education. In comparison, Georgia’s Constitution requires the provision of an “adequate” education. The suit might help clarify the differences in each standard.
The lawsuit also calls into question the crucial issue of whether public school education represents a fundamental right, like Free Speech. If not, what is the state’s legal duty to educate its children? The answers to these questions are of great interest to many disaffected Georgian parents of public school students who wonder what kind of education their children are being “guaranteed,” and are prepared to challenge the “adequacy” of the education their children are being provided.
These issues were previously litigated. In the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that education is not a fundamental right and the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality in school funding or prohibit “rational” disparities in educational funding. Thus, it refused to overturn Texas’ educational funding system that provided public schools with a “foundation” level of state funding, and enabled districts to augment state public school funding using revenues from local property taxes. This created funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.
It may be time for the Court to revisit these issues. Part of what is driving the Florida suit is that the state’s share of education funding has dropped from nearly 62 percent to about 44 percent, as lawmakers have shifted the responsibility for funding public schools to local communities through property taxes. This has made it virtually impossible for poor school districts to provide a “high quality” education. Even wealthy school districts are balking at their ever increasing funding burden.
What does all of this mean to Georgians? Before the parents of Georgia’s public school students rush to file comparable suits, they should understand a few things. First, Georgia’s Constitution only calls for the state to provide an “adequate” education, which is a much easier standard for the state to meet than in Florida. Also, in Georgia, state funds still account for over 60 percent of public education expenses, much higher than in Florida.
Nonetheless, the overall quality of public education in Georgia remains poor and its high school graduation rate is dismally low. Also, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental right, the Court has consistently stated that education is, “perhaps the most important function of state and local government…and the very foundation of good citizenship.” One wonders how can an uneducated populace properly exercise fundamental rights, such as First Amendment freedoms or the right to vote? Doesn’t this place the right to an education on the same footing as these other fundamental rights? They seem inexorably linked.
Given the anti-government furor that is sweeping the nation, this may be enough for Georgian parents to have a Howard Beale moment, in which they throw open their windows and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” To borrow a metaphor from Sarah Palin, perhaps it’s time for Georgia’s Mama (and Papa) Bulldogs, Panthers, and other public school parents to test the legal waters again to ensure our children receive an adequate public education. Some argue our kids deserve at least that much.
– From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog