The most recent installment of the New Cornerstone report by the Florida Chamber of Commerce issued an alarming verdict:
“Florida ranks near the bottom tier of states in most measures of educational performance ....”14In fact, there is overwhelming evidence of the significant ground that our state has lost. Florida’s high school graduation rate ranks 49th in the country.15 SAT scores have fallen to rank only 46th out of 50, and our state’s ACT scores are the lowest in eight years.16
Florida’s elected leaders are allowing its schoolchildren to fall further behind other American students. Our state ranks a dismal 50th in per-capita spending on education and its rankings on educational achievement reflect that deficit.17
Florida spends an average of $5,982 per K-12 student, a figure well below the national average of $7,079.18 If Florida invested in its public schools at the national average, students would reap the benefits of an additional $2.6 billion in education funding every year.19
A major reason why our state ranks so poorly on so many of these key measures of educational quality is because of yet another ranking—Florida ranks 44th out of 50 states in student-teacher ratios.20 Indeed, overcrowded classrooms are taking a devastating toll on the quality of teaching and learning.
Tragically, there is ample evidence that many students heading back to school this fall are entering classrooms that are even more crowded. A Miami Herald article examined classroom conditions in several southwest Florida counties and reported that for the 2002-03 school year “students are bracing for larger class sizes and crowded classrooms.”21 The Herald also reported that teachers in one city high school complained that some classes had 50 or 60 students.22 In Lake County, public school officials predict their student population will double within a decade.23
Former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley has expressed a view that has been overwhelmingly supported by years and years of research: “Teachers do not teach most effectively when they are hampered by the burden of too many students in the classroom.”24 Considering the overcrowded classrooms that plague so many of our public schools, the deplorable state of education in Florida is no surprise.
Overcrowded classes sabotage the best efforts of teachers to help their students learn. “Add 10 extra children to your family and see what happens,” a Leon County educator wrote in a letter to her local newspaper. “We all pay for overcrowding.”25 Last school year, Eugene Tisdale, a Brevard County 11th-grader described his predicament: “I’m in a class with 35 other kids and I’m telling you, it’s difficult.”26
A written survey of more than 11,000 middle and high school students in Palm Beach County found that students placed a high priority on smaller classes. About 63 percent said it is easiest for them to learn in classes with fewer than 26 students.27
More and more parents, civic leaders, business owners and others are recognizing that shortchanging children today puts Florida’s tomorrow in jeopardy. Without taking action now, conditions in our schools will deteriorate even further. High school dropout rates—already alarming—will soar. Businesses will find it increasingly difficult to create jobs or fill existing jobs with young workers who have the necessary skills. Cities and communities will become less cohesive and stable, and their young people will be more tempted to turn to drugs or engage in other criminal activities.
If the state remains on educational “auto-pilot,” classrooms will only become more overcrowded. Our public schools need urgent attention, and Amendment 9—the class-size reduction initiative—can be both the starting point and the catalyst for broader, systemic reforms that put Florida’s children and future first.