March 26, 2008
ACLU Sues Over High School Dropout Rates
In a notable development last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Palm Beach County School District in Florida over what it claims is a violation of its students' basic right to quality education as promised in the state constitution.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the county school district has failed its students --especially kids from communities of color -- by not offering a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality education." It is, on the face of it, the same argument that has been made to varying effect in more than 20 states to date: states are not providing children the quality of education that they promise either implicitly or explicitly in their constitutions. But the ACLU has taken a different angle in the latest lawsuit, because rather than suing for a more equal distribution of school spending and other resources, the group is instead suing for the district to improve high school graduation rates, particularly among low-income and students of color.
It may sound like a minor distinction, but it is a meaningful one in both legal terms and practical terms. Legally, any precedent set by decisions such as the ones in New York State, and New Jersey does not apply because the existing suits challenged resource distribution within the state. ACLU is making no such complaint in this case, arguing instead that it is the responsibility of the Palm Beach County School District, and not the state of Florida, to make the needed changes.
Practically, I think the lawsuit is, perhaps regrettably, loaded with potential pitfalls. For starters, while the focus on graduation rates is on-point to the degree that a high school diploma is virtually a necessity to compete in the 21st century job marketplace, the ACLU's suit fails to acknowledge that a diploma is only valuable if it actually represents real skills and knowledge learned. By concentrating on a single measure of output (graduation rates) without regard for whether the measure is an accurate representation of student learning, the ACLU may just be trading one education injustice for another by a different name (would the ACLU be happy with this news headline in 2012: 100% of Palm Beach County Students Graduate High School; Only Half Can Read"?)
Secondly, the lawsuit fails to recognize the fact that the Palm Beach County School District is not singularly accountable for law student achievement. If anything, the lawsuit sends the onus of legal accountability in the wrong trend from state-level suits. If states have not been able to level the educational playing field in the past two decades, how much less successful will we be, if we try to rely on individual school districts? From a scale perspective, is the ACLU going to file a similar lawsuit in the 15,000 other school districts in the country? To improve educational outcomes for all youth -- including low-income and youth of color --we need to be talking about this as a problem of a crucial, national scope.