The Voters Speak in 2002: Fully Fund and Strengthen Public Education

Class Size

Even as Florida voters re-elected Governor Jeb Bush, they also passed Amendment 9, by a margin of 52 to 48 percent3, an education ballot measure he vigorously opposed.4 This amendment writes into the state’s Constitution class size limits in public schools of 18 students for grades pre-K-3; 22 students for grades 4-8; and 25 students for grades 9-12.5 The amendment requires the state — not local school districts — to fund these class-size reductions over eight years. Beginning with the 2003-2004 fiscal year, the Legislature is required to provide sufficient funds to reduce the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year until the numbers conform to the maximum class sizes prescribed in the amendment.6

People For the American Way (PFAW) was a major partner in the Coalition to Reduce Class Size, chaired by Congressman-elect Kendrick Meek of Miami. Meek organized the petition campaign to secure ballot status after repeatedly watching legislative efforts fail to reduce class sizes. PFAW spearheaded pro-Amendment 9 efforts by providing financial resources, staff, paid media, and volunteers who gathered petitions for the initiative and contacted voters to seek their support. In September, PFAW and the Coalition to Reduce Class Size co-authored a special report that outlined the crisis in Florida’s overcrowded classrooms and the urgent need for passage of Amendment 9.7 For example, Florida ranks 44th in the nation in student teacher ratio, 46th in the nation on SAT scores, 49th in the nation for high school graduation rates and 50th in the nation in per-capita education spending.8 The report also documented the merits of class size reduction and its affordability. Additionally, PFAW produced a television ad in support of Amendment 9 that aired in several of the state’s media markets. The ad challenged Gov. Jeb Bush’s rosy assessment of Florida’s public schools and pointed to the need for swift action.

Florida’s powerful Republican political establishment, including Governor Bush and former state House Speaker John Thrasher, led the campaign against Amendment 9.9 In fact, as the St. Petersburg Times noted, Bush “campaign[ed] against it almost as much as against (his) challenger Bill McBride ....”10 Starting in the spring — long before the initiative was certified for the November ballot — the governor and his allies waged a relentless assault against Amendment 9. This assault was carefully timed to raise public doubts about the amendment’s costs, its impact on other state-funded programs, and other issues. And Bush warned that the state could not pay for smaller class sizes without tax increases.11 As a reporter for The Miami Herald observed, “Gov. Jeb Bush’s television ads are doing the [opposition’s] work” by raising fears about the Amendment’s cost.12 These fears were based on a cost estimate by state economists that was widely criticized.13 A Palm Beach Post editorial stated that this cost estimate relied on “political accounting to inflate the estimated cost by nearly 300 percent from roughly $10 billion to $27 billion.”14 Opponents also charged that Amendment 9 could result in busing, a statement that some decried as race-baiting.15

Despite these and other attacks, PFAW and other Amendment 9 proponents fought back, pointing to several funding options that would cover the amendment’s costs without program cuts or a tax increase. One of these options, cited in the PFAW-Coalition report, called for eliminating a portion of exemptions to the state sales tax that benefit special interests. These include exemptions for ostrich feed, luxury skyboxes at sporting events, and adult entertainment services.16 As The Miami Herald explained, “even if lawmakers eliminated just a tenth of the [sales tax] exemptions, there would be ample funds to pay for the initiative.”17 Additionally, Palm Beach Post columnist Randy Schultz threw cold water on Amendment 9 foes who falsely claimed the class size initiative would force a tax increase. “The gloom-and-doomers say that if the class-size amendment passes, Florida might need a state income tax, which the Constitution prohibits. They’re wrong.”18 Schultz pointed out that legislators could fund Amendment 9 (and other priorities) by eliminating some special-interest tax exemptions. “Florida runs on the sales tax,” he wrote. “The tax, however, applies to less than half of all sales.” 19

While some Amendment 9 foes argued that class-size decisions should be reserved for the Legislature, The Miami Herald answered this argument best. In its endorsement of Amendment 9, the editorial board of The Herald wrote, “Considering that Florida lawmakers for years have defeated or thwarted every attempt to properly fund education, Amendment 9 is an appropriate way to force the Legislature’s hand.”20

Although Gov. Bush stated during the campaign that he had “devious plans” to subvert the amendment if it passed,21 now the governor and the Legislature will be charged with finding the funds to pay for smaller class sizes because a frustrated public has demanded it.22 Moreover, the governor’s response may be tempered by the fact that Amendment 9 enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. In fact, an analysis of Nov. 5 vote totals strongly suggests that hundreds of thousands of Floridians who voted to re-elect Gov. Bush also gave their support to Amendment 9.23

Amendment 9 ensured that the important issue of public education was center-stage during the election campaign. “The class-size amendment is becoming a flash point of the campaign, and it should be,” wrote Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto. “Class size isn’t the only issue in Florida’s educational crisis, but it’s a critical one.”24 Indeed, Amendment 9 turned the election year into an ongoing seminar, exposing the public to the ways in which the learning environment in Florida’s public schools has been seriously compromised. Shortly before Election Day, even Thrasher, president of the Coalition to Protect Florida,25 the leading anti-Amendment 9 political committee, acknowledged that the initiative “has created a dialogue in the state of Florida that is unprecedented.”26 In September, Governor Bush offered a proposal on class size that —while clearly inadequate — demonstrated the initiative’s power in framing the debate.27

The Coalition to Reduce Class Size and PFAW helped build an impressive network of supporters for class-size reduction, reaching well beyond public-school parents and educators. In addition to the NAACP and the Florida Education Association and other labor organizations28 , this network of supporters included: Florida’s former First Lady Rhea Chiles, Florida Consumer Action Network, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, National Women’s Political Caucus of Florida, Florida Psychological Association, Florida National Council of Jewish Women, Criminal Justice Forum, WeCount!, and the Community Health Action Information Network.29 This broad-based network will now turn to providing the needed leverage to ensure that the governor and Legislature properly fund and implement the amendment. And public education advocates in other states are eagerly pointing to Amendment 9’s victory as proof that voters are ready to take action when state legislatures have failed to address public education’s needs.

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