ACLU Sues State of Florida and State Officials Over Poor Graduation Rates

For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 
Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Brandon Hensler, ACLU of Florida, (786) 363-2737; media@aclufl.org

ACLU Sues State of Florida and State Officials Over Poor Graduation Rates

High Dropout Rates Evidence of a Violation of Florida Constitution

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Poor
graduation rates in Palm Beach County, Florida demonstrate a failure by
state officials to ensure that all students receive a high quality
education as mandated by the Florida Constitution, according to a class
action lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union and
the ACLU of Florida. At least a third - and possibly as many as half -
of Palm Beach County's students do not graduate on time with a regular
diploma, well below both state and national averages. 

"Palm Beach County is clearly not upholding its
responsibility to provide a quality education to all of its students
when so many of them are not graduating," said Chris Hansen, senior
staff attorney with the ACLU. "The problem in Palm Beach County is
reflective of a broad national problem of poor graduation rates, and
state officials must be held accountable for failing our children."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of parents and
students in Palm Beach County, charges that state officials violate the
state's constitutional requirement that all students receive a
"uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality" free public
education. The ACLU is not seeking any specific remedies, only that the
school district improve its graduation rates without pushing students
out of the system. The lawsuit also seeks to put in place a uniform and
reliable graduation rate calculation that accurately accounts for every
student enrolled in Palm Beach County's high schools. Currently, the
Florida Department of Education uses inaccurate and inflated graduation
rate measures.

The Palm Beach School District has 170,215
students in 186 schools, and graduation rates that varied between 56
percent and 71 percent in 2006, depending on the methodology used to
perform the calculations.

Florida's "self-reported" numbers indicate that
approximately two-thirds of students graduate, but those numbers
currently include students who do not receive a standard diploma.
Further inflating the numbers, students who repeat a grade are counted
with their graduating class rather than the class with which they
entered school.

Additionally, a significant disparity exists
between the graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students
and those of white students. For the past five years, the gap between
black and white graduation rates has remained approximately 30
percentage points, while the gap between Hispanic and white graduation
rates has been about 20 percentage points. According to the ACLU's
legal challenge, the stark difference in graduation rates along racial
lines is evidence enough of the school district's constitutional
violations. The lawsuit, however, aims to improve the graduation rates
for all students enrolled in Palm Beach County.

"It is imperative that there be accountability
when students are not afforded their constitutional right to a high
quality public education," said Muslima Lewis, Director of the ACLU of
Florida's Racial Justice Project. "All students, regardless of their
age, race, special needs, ethnicity or gender, deserve an environment
that breeds success, not failure."

Graduation rates are not just a problem in Palm
Beach, but throughout the country. School districts with similar
demographics as Palm Beach's perform substantially better, proving that
Palm Beach County, too, can do better. In 2004, for example, the school
systems in Maryland's Baltimore and Montgomery Counties and Virginia's
Fairfax County had graduation rates of over 80 percent. Accordingly,
Palm Beach County's low high school graduation rate and the disparity
between the graduation rate of African-American and Hispanic students
and that of white students cannot be attributed to socio-economic
status, immigrant status or student transfers to private schools.

A high-quality education is the cornerstone for
success, as evidenced by the fact that in 2001 the unemployment rate
for dropouts 25 years old and over was 75 percent higher than for high
school graduates. A study released last month by Northeastern
University shows that one in every 10 young male high school dropouts
is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male
high school graduates.

A circuit court judge dismissed a similar
lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2008 against Palm Beach County
education officials, saying it named the wrong defendant without ruling
on the merits of the case.

Aho et al. vs. Charlie Crist et al. was filed in
the Circuit Court of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach
County, Florida. Attorneys in the class action lawsuit include Hansen
and Vanita Gupta of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Lewis of the ACLU
of Florida, Deborah N. Archer of the New York Law School Racial Justice
Project and ACLU Cooperating attorney Ramona Hupp.

A copy of today's lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/aho-et-al-vs-state-florida-et-al-class-action-complaint

Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice

Additional information about the ACLU of Florida is available online at: www.aclufl.org

Additional information about the New York Law School Racial Justice Project is available online at: www.nyls.edu/pages/5368.asp

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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