ATLANTA - A coalition of Florida school districts has filed a lawsuit charging that education funding is so deficient that it violates the state's constitution.
The suit, filed April 22 in Leon Country Circuit Court, was initiated by 43 of the state's 67 school districts and names as defendants Gov. Lawton Chiles, Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson, Senate President Pat Thomas, and House Speaker Bolley Johnson.
"The suit seeks to redress what we feel is the obvious inadequacy of funding for public schools her," John Gaines, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said last Friday.
A spokesman for Jamerson said that the education commissioner agrees that schools need more money, but contests the claim that the existing funding mechanism is unconstitutional.
Gaines said that the suit does not spell out how much should be spent to redress the financing gap nor does it identify new sources of money for education. But he said that a recent legislative study assessing the needs of 2,500 schools in the state found that the schools studied urged an additional $4.8 billion in yearly spending for operations alone.
Florida spent about $300 less per student than the national average in 1992, the most recent year for which nationwide statistic are available. Spending for the 1995 school year will be $3,350 per child, up from the $3,171 allocated in 1991 when Chiles came into office.
Unlike a number of recent lawsuits in other states challenging education funding, the Florida school districts' complaint does not directly address the question of funding equity - the discrepancy between education financing in school districts across the state, Gaines said.
"Right now we are just looking for adequacy of funding - our thought is that if this is addressed, there would be no need to redistribute monies," he said.
However, according to Graham Carothers, lawyer for the plaintiffs, the court touch on the equity issue given the language of Florida's Constitution.
Article nine, section one reads: "Adequate provision should be made by law for a uniform system of free public schools and the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher education and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.
In 1987, Carothers said, a group of 20 Florida school districts filed a lawsuit charging that the school funding system discriminates against poorer counties in the state. A lower court upheld the state's funding formula, and the plaintiffs declined to appeal.
The lawsuit filed late last month, which will cost an estimated $250,000 a year to pursue, is financed by a 25-cent per student assessment of participating school districts, said Gaines. So far, he said, the coalition has spent about three-quarters of one year's funding.
The suit was filed in state court, Carothers said, because the plaintiffs believe that Florida's Constitution allows for a broader challenge of state education funding that the U.S. Constitution. But he said that a federal suit from some or all of the participating school districts bases on the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment may eventually be filed.
Carothers said that he expects two more counties, Dixie and Jackson - both of which are located in Florida's panhandle - to soon join the coalition. Counties that have not joined the lawsuit include Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe, located in populous South Florida.
The Florida lawsuit continues a trend in which school districts nationwide have increasingly turned to the courts to obtain increased state funding.
According to the American Bar Association, school districts in 32 states have filed lawsuits charging inadequate school funding. Last year, the ABA said, state courts in Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts. New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Tennessee ruled against their states' school funding formulas. But in Minnesota, Nebraska, and North Dakota, state supreme courts upheld school funding systems, reversing lower courts.
According to the Education Commission of the States, which is based in Denver, school funding lawsuits have been filed in more than 20 states since 1989.
In its fiscal 1995 budget, Florida allocated about &9.5 billion for public school through 12th grade, with about $6 billion coming from the state and the remainder mainly from local property taxes. The state's all-funds budget for fiscal 1995, which begins July 1, is $38.6 billion.