More than 20,000 Pinellas black students can stand together against the school system in a lawsuit that alleges they are not being properly educated, a three-judge appeals panel ruled Wednesday.
The decision granting class-action status to the lawsuit sets the stage for an extraordinary legal battle over some of the biggest questions facing American educators today:
How should school districts address the low achievement of black students and disproportionately high number of disciplinary actions against those students? Can school systems alone be held accountable for the problem?
The case is thought to be a one-of-a-kind attempt to get the courts to resolve a complex issue that educators historically have tried to work out in the classroom.
It also raises the specter of the school district deposing scores of children in an effort to prove that the “achievement gap” between black and white children is a matter of individual circumstance and effort, not the fault of the system.
Lawyers for plaintiff William Crowley argue the numbers are so damning they prove a systemwide failure to “meet the needs and requirements of students of African descent.”
The district contends it is working hard to close the achievement gap, but that the disparity is a complicated phenomenon caused by factors schools cannot control.
Among the factors cited by researchers: a high incidence of poverty among black families; distrust by some black parents of white-run schools; and time in front of the television in black households that exceeds the rest of the population.
District officials, citing a number of classroom initiatives, have said they would be hard-pressed to do much more in an age when the government is pressing them as never before to address the gap.
In the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test administered last spring, only 30 percent of Pinellas black students scored at proficient levels in reading—lower than any other minority group. Meanwhile, 63 percent of white students were proficient.
Similarly, 43 percent of black students graduated from Pinellas high schools in 2004 with a standard diploma after four years of study. The graduation rate for white students was 72 percent.
Also, black students are far more likely to be disciplined in Pinellas schools than white students. In 2003 and 2004, about 39 percent of all disciplinary referrals went to black students, who make up only 19 percent of the enrollment.