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Battle over education system ready for ruling

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Leon County circuit judge heard closing arguments Friday in a potentially far-reaching lawsuit that challenges whether the state has met a constitutional requirement to provide a "high quality" system of public schools.

Judge George Reynolds, who heard four weeks of testimony and arguments, described the case as a "difficult issue." He did not rule Friday and said lawyers have until April 25 to file written arguments.

The lawsuit, led by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools, is rooted in a 1998 constitutional amendment that says it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system" of public schools.

Citizens for Strong Schools argues that Florida has not complied and that the court should require the state to take steps to carry out the constitutional amendment.

"The state has failed to make adequate provision by not allowing significant numbers of students to obtain a high-quality education,'' Jodi Siegel, an attorney for Citizens for Strong Schools, said Friday during her closing argument. "This is not an insignificant matter. There's over 1 million students that cannot read at grade level. There are half-a-million free-and-reduced lunch students who cannot read at grade level."

But Rocco Testani, an attorney for the Florida Board of Education, argued that the state's schools have made a huge amount of improvement and pointed to indicators such as scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of tests commonly used to compare students across the country.

"What we know is that Florida has had a remarkable journey from a state that was below average, well below average, 15, 16, 17 years ago, to a state that is now truly a leader, truly a leader, when it comes to national comparisons," Testani said.

Issues of state education funding, standards and testing have drawn fierce debate during the past two decades, particularly because of changes that former Gov. Jeb Bush spearheaded. Those changes relied heavily on standardized testing, school grades and expanding school choice.

Before the closing arguments Friday, a video deposition of former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan was presented in court. Brogan served as state education commissioner before becoming Bush's lieutenant governor and helped usher in the changes.

Brogan, who is now the chancellor of the higher-education system in Pennsylvania, testified in the deposition that he is proud of progress Florida has made. He testified that Bush made education the highest priority of the administration and described Bush as a "wonk."

"It was difficult to debate education issues with Gov. Bush if you didn't know what you were talking about," Brogan said.