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Legal Actions Counter Cuts to Funding in Florida and Maryland

Florida Lawsuit Challenges Decision to Give Poor District Largest Cut

On June 30, the School Board of Miami-Dade County filed for declaratory and injunctive relief in Florida state court, challenging a new funding formula enacted by the legislature for the 2004-05 school year. Under the new scheme Miami-Dade County, which educates 14.3% of the state's children, would absorb 54% of scheduled state funding cuts. Miami-Dade is a high-needs district with nearly twice the state's illiteracy rate, one third of the state's total number of students with limited English proficiency, a high rate of poverty, and the second lowest graduation rate in the state.

A section of the Florida Constitution directs the Commissioner of Education to utilize a District Cost Differential (DCD) in its calculation of the annual budget of each school district. The Plaintiff School Board objects to the legislature's decision, for the first time in 30 years, to change the basis of the DCD calculation. The "market basket" methodology, used for the last 30 years, compares costs, such as housing, transportation, health care, food and goods, to calculate cost differentials among districts. The new "amenities" approach, adopted this year, bases cost differentials on a comparison of salaries for certain jobs and profoundly and adversely affects Miami-Dade.

Defendants in the case are James King, President of the Florida Senate, Johnnie Byrd Jr., Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Jim Horne, as Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of Education, and the State Board of Education.

ACLU Challenges Funding Cuts to Baltimore City Schools

Hearings began on July 22 - 23, 2004 on a motion filed by the ACLU of Maryland to prevent cuts to education programs and services benefiting Baltimore City schoolchildren. The ACLU is arguing that budget cuts that have eliminated summer school for most students this summer and, for the school year starting in September, would eliminate 250 teachers, increase class sizes, cut guidance counselors and cut mentors for beginning teachers violate the court's 2000 decision in Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education and the state constitution.

Students in Baltimore City made double-digit gains this year on the Maryland School Assessments, after programs such as summer school, beginning-teacher mentors, and smaller class sizes had been put in place to raise achievement. However, the ACLU complaint notes that, despite these gains, the majority of students test at a "basic" level reflecting "inadequate" skills and that budget cuts would undermine future progress on achievement.

A School District Financial Crisis
The ACLU argues that the duty to provide an adequate education can not be compromised in the name of deficit elimination. Ironically, a deficit of $58 million developed over the last few years, after governance changes won by the State in 1997 moved control of the schools from a local (Baltimore City) board to an independent school board appointed jointly by the Governor and the Mayor and chosen from a list provided by the State Board of Education. The State began an investigation of the deficit in February and recently issued a report on its causes.

The State has justified the cuts to programs and services on two grounds: first, there is a state law that requires all school systems to balance their budget each year and gives the city a year to catch up; and second, there is a "Memorandum of Understanding" between City Hall and the City Schools requiring any deficit be paid off every two years.

The hearings are expected to conclude on August 3, 2004.

Prepared by Geneva McDaniel, July 27, 2004.