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Low graduation rate draws Florida lawsuit

The case against the Palm Beach County district aims to clarify its duty to keep more kids in school.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2008

Florida grads: The state says 68.7 percent of its students graduate from high school. Others say the number is lower.

Terry Barner/The News Herald/AP

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Amid mounting national frustration over high school graduation rates, the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida has been thrust onto center stage.

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In a class-action lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that the district boost its graduation rates and reduce the gaps in those rates between racial and socioeconomic groups. The lawsuit is the first in the United States to make such demands of a school district, the ACLU and other sources say.

Lawyers from the national ACLU and its Florida chapter filed the suit in state court on March 18. Specifically, the ACLU is asking the court to require the district to improve its graduation rates by a certain percentage each year – overall and for subgroups. It also wants the court to determine a more accurate way of calculating graduation rates – a complex issue nationwide.

For educators and education experts, the case raises some controversial questions: What is an acceptable rate of graduation? And who should be held responsible when schools miss the mark – schools, students, society?

"If the ACLU is successful, this is going to shake everything up, because it will be a whole different set of expectations about who is supposed to solve the problems," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Under the state-required reporting system, the graduation rate in the Palm Beach County District last year was 71.4 percent. The suit claims that other methods of calculation would yield an even lower rate. But either way, it argues, the success level is inadequate. It also notes that in Palm Beach County, the state-reported rate for whites was 29 percentage points higher than that of African-Americans and 20 points higher than that of Hispanics.

Some observers say they'd be surprised to see the case go far unless the state is also brought in as a defendant, because the state determines so much education policy and funding. To others, the suit skirts over the role of individuals, families, and society in ensuring that students qualify for a diploma.

The plaintiffs argue there's more the district can be doing. "The graduation rates in Palm Beach County are shamefully low," says Vanita Gupta, an ACLU staff attorney in New York. The district needs to "live up to its constitutional obligations [in Florida] to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality education."

"We all want to see graduation rates rise," counters the district's superintendent, Arthur Johnson. The suit is "misguided" and designed to get attention, he says. "We do have a gap [in graduation rates].... But so does the state, so does the nation.... Suing Palm Beach County is not going to solve it."

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