“Destiny is no matter of chance,” said William Jennings Bryan. “It is a matter of choice.”121 Indeed, through their misplaced priorities, our state’s leaders have made a choice: to condemn our children to classroom conditions that are hostile to teaching and learning. In doing so, they seriously jeopardize Florida’s future.
The crisis faced by our overcrowded schools is not new, and the warning signs have been all too glaring. For example, in the fall of 1996, Broward County schools enrolled 35,000 more students than it had seats to accommodate.122 Other school districts throughout the state have also seen their student populations swell—without the needed state funds to construct new classroom space and hire additional teachers.
Some who have criticized Amendment 9 have offered a mixed message: smaller classes are a good idea, but this initiative costs too much. In other words, to quote Frederick Douglass, these critics “want the crops without plowing up the ground.”123 Indeed, the major power brokers in Florida have been unwilling to lead on this issue and have offered no solution for overcrowding. Floridians are tired of excuses. They want answers.
For too many years, the Legislature has been derelict in its duty to the children in our public schools. During the mid-1990s, a special allocation of state funding was earmarked for class-size reduction, but the Legislature later incorporated these funds into the overall funding that school districts received.124 This lack of legislative discipline sabotaged the goal of smaller classes.
Years later, there was another false start. In 1998, the Florida Senate’s Majority Office compiled a comprehensive report on class size and ultimately recommended a class size reduction initiative.125 Despite the efforts of some legislators, the issue of class-size reduction got nowhere in the next legislative session.
Last year, the Legislature had yet another opportunity to address the problem of overcrowded classrooms, but genuine efforts to limit class sizes failed. A bill purporting to address the class size issue was introduced last year, offering a $3,000 voucher to any student in an overcrowded public school. Instead of fulfilling their obligations as stewards of the public schools, the backers of this bill were content to ship public school students—and, with them, millions of tax dollars—to private schools. Jody Gleason, a Palm Beach County School Board member, asked the obvious question: “Why don’t they just give us money to build more schools?”126
Earlier this year, hopes were raised—and later dashed—again by the Legislature. In April, the Senate passed an amendment to the state education code, establishing a commission that would implement smaller class sizes for all public school grades and recommend funding sources for these class-size reductions.127 The Senate amendment received bipartisan support but was defeated in the House.
In a fundraising letter before the 1998 election, Jeb Bush decried overcrowded schools and classrooms in Volusia and Broward counties, and he offered “a few ideas” to voters. Bush’s very first idea was “to restore intimacy to our schools. I am convinced that smaller is always better than bigger when it comes to teaching kids.” (Emphasis in original.)128 But he failed to include class size in his education plan. And four years later, his actions are a far cry from that campaign rhetoric. While the class-size problem predated Gov. Bush’s arrival at the governor’s mansion, he has repeatedly shown that this issue is not one of his priorities. Instead, Bush’s approach to education has gone in a very different and disturbing direction.
While class-size reduction has remained on the back-burner, Gov. Bush has actively led the charge for voucher programs that divert critical funding and energy from our public schools. Gov. Bush’s tax policies have seriously drained the state treasury at the same time he suggests the state cannot afford to invest in smaller class sizes for students. The corporate tax breaks championed by Bush are a prime example. When Congress passed a stimulus package earlier this year, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) warned of the impact that this lost revenue would have on states. “Education will clearly be the big loser as governors struggle to balance their budgets,” said NGA Executive Director Ray Scheppach, who warned that the lost revenue could inflict “larger class sizes” and other consequences on states.129 Armed with this information, Gov. Bush pushed for a bill that would—in the words of the state’s chief economist—“allow Florida corporations to legally avoid $428.4 million” in corporate taxes.130 The corporate tax breaks were approved by the Legislature in spite of warnings from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research that the bill would deplete revenues and cost the state jobs.131
Over the last three years, Florida’s ranking has fallen in per-capita education spending, graduation rates, and SAT scores, while class sizes have increased.132 That record and the governor’s actions may explain the results of a June poll conducted by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel which found that only 28 percent of those polled said public education had improved under Gov. Bush’s leadership.133