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May 24, 7:45 PM EDT

Florida judge: Schools are getting enough money



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A Florida judge on Tuesday tossed aside a major lawsuit that contended the state is shortchanging its public school students, arguing that the groups and parents who have brought the challenge failed to show evidence of a crisis that required the courts to step in.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds also questioned whether or not he even had the legal authority to "second guess" legislators and the governor, saying that such a decision could lead to "a quagmire" for the courts.

The ruling was a substantial victory for the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and other top state officials who had spent at least $4 million defending the state since the lawsuit was first filed back in 2009. The legal challenge had the potential to upend the state's entire school system because it also challenged Florida's use of standardized testing, private school vouchers and charter schools.

But Reynolds ruled that "the weight of evidence shows that the state has made education a top priority" by imposing a series of sweeping changes ushered in by former Gov. Jeb Bush and by making school funding one of the top items in the state budget.

"Today's ruling validates the Legislature's policy choices on education which have dramatically improved student performance over the past 15 years," Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement.

Jodi Siegel, one of the lawyers representing the groups that sued the state, said they would appeal the decision.

Siegel said in an email that Reynolds' order "ignores the overwhelming weight of the evidence that the public education system in Florida is failing more than a million students" and that he "incorrectly concluded" that he could not order any changes.

Education groups and parents from Duval and Pasco counties filed their initial lawsuit seven years ago. They asserted that the lack of funding for schools had been most damaging to minorities and students from poor families and pointed to an achievement gap between white children and minorities when it comes to reading and math.

The legal challenge asserted that Florida legislators and leaders were ignoring a constitutional amendment passed in 1998 that providing a "high quality system of free public schools" is a "paramount duty" of the state.

The ruling Tuesday came after a four-week trial this past spring that saw both the state and attorneys for parents present a long line of school officials and experts before Reynolds. In his ruling, Reynolds noted that "at times the trial felt like a debate on National Public Radio."

In his 29-page decision, Reynolds said that he did see problems in Florida's schools and that the state was not moving quickly enough to turn around schools that received F grades. He also said that the state was limited in its ability to force local school boards to carry out decisions that would help schoolchildren.

But he maintained there was enough evidence to show school performance had improved since Bush was elected in 1998 on a platform of overhauling the state's schools. Reynolds suggested that some of the assertions made by the groups were "political questions best resolved in the political arena."

"The court finds, based on the evidence presented, that there is a not a constitutional lack of resources available in Florida schools," Reynolds wrote. "That doesn't mean that everything is perfect, it simply means that there is not a constitutional level crisis sufficient to warrant judicial intervention."

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