Smaller class size still a political question

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE — The first year of lowering class sizes in Florida’s public schools will be the easiest.

If opponents have their way it will also be the last.

But efforts to squash the class size provision now in the state constitution have failed before — even though they were led by Gov. Jeb Bush as he was making history by becoming the first Republican to win a second term as Florida governor.

During his campaign last year, Bush warned repeatedly that the proposed constitutional amendment would cost billions and billions of dollars and force either program cuts or tax hikes.

The ballot measure called on the state to give school districts enough money to lower class sizes over the next eight years to reach caps that take effect in 2010. The cap is 18 children per classroom for the early grades, 22 children per classroom in the middle grades and 25 students in high school classrooms.

Despite the governor’s passionate opposition, voters approved the measure.

That was just last year. Voters could be asked to change their minds as early as next.

Bush has made it clear that he wants the language out of the constitution. The Florida Board of Education, which is made up of seven Bush appointees, voted last month to support repeal.

The governor and board members argue the cost of the reducing class sizes will be so high that the state won’t be able to dedicate money to teacher pay or reading initiatives.

“We’re living in a world where we don’t have unlimited resources. We have to balance our budget just like Florida families do,” Bush said. “So the options for Floridians really are, ‘Do you want to pay teachers more or do you want to lower class sizes?”‘

But neither the board nor the governor has the power to put the issue back before voters.

The Legislature does.

“I wouldn’t jump at it and it wouldn’t be my first choice,” said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and is expected to become Senate president in 2005.

Lee, however, said he doesn’t see any way of implementing the provision without raising taxes. And he doesn’t see that happening. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd rejected all efforts by the state Senate last year to raise more money for state government.

Byrd, R-Plant City, said he’s not interested in repealing the class size provision unless the state makes a substantial investment in raising teacher salaries and creating a career ladder to reward better teachers with higher pay.

Byrd wants to replace the current class size provision, which covers all grades from prekindergarten through 12th grade, with a measure that instead caps class sizes through just the third grade. But absent the teacher pay plan, he said he’d “just as soon see the class size stay on there.”

Lee said he would only support returning the issue to the ballot in 2004 if the question put to voters is “structured in some way to show respect” to the efforts by supporters to get on the 2002 ballot.

One way of doing that, Lee said, would be scaling back the current constitutional language to deal with only the early grades. Another way would be asking voters to specify how they wanted to pay for class size reduction.

Not all legislative leaders support repeal. The top budget writer in the state Senate, for instance, said he won’t be voting to put the issue back before voters — and it takes a three-fifths vote of both chambers to reach the ballot.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to implement it and do it well,” said state Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. “And I believe it would be immoral to go back or to make any attempt to repeal it.”

Sen. Burt Saunders, a Naples Republican, agrees there’s no guarantee the Legislature will put a repeal measure on the ballot. So he’s decided to start a citizen’s initiative, which requires half a million signatures. He thinks people have changed their minds.

“It’s very important for the citizens of Florida to express their views through the petition process,” Saunders said.

That’s what U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, thought last year when he led the petition drive to get the class size provision on the ballot. “They’ve already spoken,” Meek said of the voters.