Dereliction of Duty

Dis-Investing in Public Education—the Class Size Reduction Debacle

Prior to the 1998 gubernatorial election, Jeb Bush decried overcrowded schools and classrooms, stating: “I am convinced that smaller is always better than bigger when it comes to teaching kids.”64 But once elected, Bush failed to include smaller class sizes in his education plan and has repeatedly shown that this issue is not one of his priorities.65

In November 2002, Florida voters approved three education measures, sending a clear message to the state’s Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature to dedicate more money and thought to education issues.66 One of these measures was Amendment 9, a class size reduction initiative that limits the number of students in the state’s public school classrooms to 18 for pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grade, and 25 for high school. Class size reductions would be phased in over an eight-year period and would be funded by the state legislature.67

The passage of Amendment 9 was vigorously opposed by Governor Jeb Bush, who, according to the St. Petersburg Times, campaigned against the amendment almost as much as he campaigned against his opponent, Bill McBride. Bush criticized the class size reduction plan as being too expensive,68 even going as far as to say that it will “block out the sun,”69 even though his administration was at the time diverting millions of taxpayers dollars to voucher programs and other education privatization efforts.

Bush was caught on tape telling lawmakers that he had “devious plans” if Amendment 9 passed. While Bush later attributed this statement to sarcasm,70 the Bush administration’s record in following the will of the people and implementing smaller class sizes speaks for itself. Little more than a month after its passage, state Senator Anna Cowin (R-Leesburg)—a member of the select committee created to work on implementing Amendment 9—filed legislation to repeal the amendment. But Republican leaders, afraid of alienating voters so soon after the election, refused to back Cowin’s legislation.71

Following Jeb Bush’s lead on vouchers as a solution to virtually any educational problem, in March 2003, the House approved a bill that would provide students with vouchers to alleviate overcrowding in public schools.72 Specifically, the bill would allow school districts to give students a $3,500 voucher to use at a private school, create another $3,500 voucher program for private kindergarten programs, and expand the corporate tuition tax credit program so that more children would become eligible for private school vouchers. In keeping with Bush’s propensity to support homeschooling at the public’s expense, the bill would also give parents $4,800 to enroll their children in a virtual school from kindergarten to grade eight. And finally, the bill would fast-track graduation, reducing the number of high school credit hours from 135 to 120, and reducing the number of credits required for graduation from 24 to 18.73 In June, a class size reduction implementation bill enacted as law did not include the voucher and homeschooling options that House Republicans had proposed back in April, but did include the controversial accelerated graduation for some students.74

Despite signing the bill, the governor is still pushing to repeal Amendment 9, stating: “If people want to change their minds, I will be there with my support and my vote.”75 In August 2003, the state Board of Education voted to support repealing part of the amendment. While the board supported smaller class sizes in kindergarten through grade three, they suggested repealing smaller class requirements from grade four onwards. All seven Board of Education members are chosen by the governor.76

Taking his cue from the Board of Education’s decision, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd (R-Plant City) is touting a ballot initiative asking voters to limit the class size reduction plan. Bryd has stated that he would eventually like the class size measure to be removed from the state constitution and instead have the issue be discussed in the legislature.77 Similarly, in October, State Senator Burt Saunders (R-Naples) began a public petition drive to partially eliminate Amendment 9.78

Governor Jeb Bush’s administration claims high costs of the class size reduction program as a reason for repeal. Education Commissioner Horne claims that the money saved by repealing Amendment 9 would be spent on teacher salaries, reading specialists, and technology and career preparation for high school students.79 But in fact, the state could adequately fund the program by eliminating a number of special interest loopholes and corporate tax breaks. The state loses an estimated $23 billion annually in sales tax revenue due to special interest loopholes and existing exemptions for things like adult entertainment, escort services, skyboxes at sporting events, and ostrich feed. Additionally, corporate tax breaks cost the state nearly $430 million in annual revenue.80 And in the last four years, Governor Bush has ordered $8 billion in tax cuts.81 In addition to all this, voucher and tuition tax credit programs cost the state millions more each year. Jeb Bush’s administration has failed to consider repealing special interest exemptions and corporate tax breaks, thereby freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars which could be used to make education a top priority in Florida.

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