Bold and Affordable Action for Florida’s Future
Florida’s overcrowded classrooms are hurting our students and our state.
Amendment 9, the class-size reduction ballot initiative, gives Florida voters a chance to address an urgent need and correct a persistent failure of leadership. It gives us the opportunity to make education a top priority in reality and not just in rhetoric. Passing Amendment 9 will be a dramatic act by the people of Florida, a profoundly pro-education and pro-opportunity step forward for Florida’s children. It will also be a major pro-business, anti-crime investment in Florida’s future that will strengthen our workforce and our economy.
The evidence is overwhelming that reducing class size is among the most effective and most cost-effective ways to strengthen schools. (See Appendix A for selected resources on the documented benefits of smaller class sizes.)
Making needed investments in smaller classes is well within Florida’s financial means. We need to approach this very achievable priority with the commitment and imagination it deserves.
Public education is a fundamental democratic institution. Generations of immigrants have been ushered into American society through the schoolhouse doors. In an increasingly diverse country, public schools are where the next generations of Americans learn to live and work together. And in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, strong public schools that provide students with essential knowledge and skills are vital to our economic future and our democratic values.
Unfortunately, an understanding of the critical role played by public schools has not led to consistent policies that create and sustain strong schools for our children. Florida’s elected leaders have too often made education a bigger priority while campaigning than while governing. With insufficient resources devoted to our schools, expectations and achievement have been allowed to fall into a spiral of diminished performance and opportunity. As a result, many public schools have been allowed to decay, and too many children are denied a meaningful chance at becoming full participants in our society.
This problem is especially acute in Florida, where nearly half of all students who enter ninth grade do not graduate from high school.1 Florida’s students struggle in some of the nation’s most crowded classrooms and rank among the nation’s worst in academic performance. News reports indicate that some students reporting for school this August have found themselves in classes of more than 50 students.2 In spite of this dire situation, the state’s per capita spending on education ranks last—50th among the states.3
This is an extraordinary crisis calling for an extraordinary and comprehensive response. It requires creativity and dedication in how we recruit, train and support quality teachers. And it requires that we take long overdue steps to deal with overcrowded classrooms and the devastating toll they take on Florida’s schoolchildren.
Repeated efforts to have the Legislature deal with classroom overcrowding have unfortunately failed. Florida’s elected leaders have not kept faith with our children. That is why parents, teachers, and other community leaders have launched a campaign to put caps on class size into the Florida Constitution.
Amendment 9 addresses the issue of overcrowded classrooms in Florida by requiring the state to provide adequate funding to limit the number of students in public school classrooms to 18 for pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grade, and 25 for high school.4 These reductions would be phased in over an eight-year period. Amendment 9 puts the responsibility for funding reduced class sizes on the Legislature, not on local school districts. Legislators would have a range of funding options to consider. The issue is not whether the state can afford smaller classes but whether the state can afford the grim costs of overcrowding: low achievement, high dropout rates, increased crime, and a shortage of skilled workers.
Earlier this year, a St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll asked the public to name the “most important” issues to address in public education. Two of the top three responses were reducing class size and strengthening “classroom discipline”—the latter of which, research shows, is improved by class-size reduction.5 In this poll, a large majority of Floridians supported the class-size initiative that is now certified for the November 5 ballot as Amendment 9.6 This overwhelming support reflects the public’s willingness to invest in our state’s future.7
Floridians’ common sense instinct—that overcrowded classrooms make it harder to teach and learn—is backed by a mountain of academic research. Research not only documents that reduced class sizes improve student achievement, but also that smaller classes reduce discipline problems, help retain teachers, and reduce dropout rates.
State leaders have unfortunately set different priorities, passing corporate tax breaks requested by the governor and this year eliminating an annual tax holiday on back-to-school purchases.8 “There’s just a refusal to listen,” said Scott Rose, Florida’s 1988 Superintendent of the Year and a longtime Republican.9 One columnist wrote, “If we keep leaving it to the Legislature, we will have 50 kids in a classroom 10 years from now.”10 In fact, in some schools, that day is here now.11
This November, Floridians will also have an opportunity to vote on two other initiatives to strengthen education in the state. Amendment 8, sponsored by Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, would offer voluntary, universal and high-quality pre-kindergarten learning programs for all four-year-old children. Amendment 11, sponsored by former governor and current U.S. Senator Bob Graham, would strengthen management and accountability of the state university system.
Together with Amendment 9, these amendments recognize the importance of lifelong learning, and they address crucial concerns from pre-K through higher education. They make sure all children have access to an early start (Amendment 8), have a learning environment that strengthens their ability to achieve (Amendment 9), and ensures that they can continue their education in a university system that receives proper oversight (Amendment 11).
The Coalition to Reduce Class Size was created and the campaign to amend the state constitution was launched to give Florida voters a chance to make education the priority that elected officials have not. A few years ago, disheartened to find that his daughter was in a kindergarten class with 34 students, State Senator Kendrick Meek began looking for answers. Unfortunately, the Legislature repeatedly defeated efforts to enact class-size reductions. Reflecting on the many times in which class-size reduction efforts have been blocked by the political establishment in Tallahassee, Meek recognized that real reform would require action by the people of Florida.
The Coalition has received an outpouring of support from students, parents, teachers, civic and business leaders, and other concerned Floridians. Defying all expectations, the Coalition’s amendment was certified for the ballot with more than 580,000 verified signatures, almost 100,000 more than required.12 The measure draws strong support from across political party lines. One supportive Republican is Kathy Bell, a media specialist at Tarpon Springs High School. “Our class sizes are ranging from 37 to 38,” said Bell. “You can’t teach 38 students. You can barely even put 38 in the classroom.”13
Parent-Teacher Associations from dozens of Florida schools helped gather signatures. Among the supporters of the Coalition to Reduce Class Size are People For the American Way, the Florida Education Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and many other local, state, and national organizations.
People For the American Way (PFAW), a civil rights and civil liberties organization with 600,000 members and supporters nationwide, is actively involved in supporting the passage of Amendment 9, and also endorses Amendments 8 and 11.
Florida’s citizens are clamoring for action to strengthen public education. PFAW’s 35,000 Florida members and supporters are eager to help seize this opportunity. For many years, both in the Sunshine State and across the nation, PFAW has been a forceful advocate for reforming and improving public schools. Indeed, we have made quality education a top substantive priority.
PFAW and its affiliated Foundation have worked on many fronts to advance the goal of a quality education for every child. For example, we have urged reforms that support qualified teachers and honor those who have made education their profession. We have advocated on behalf of federal and state policies that will support school districts in recruiting, hiring, and training high-quality teachers and in giving teachers class sizes that allow them not only to manage but teach and inspire their students.
There is no question that class size reduction must be accompanied by improved teacher quality.
We recognize that strengthening the ties between schools, teachers and parents is crucial to the success of students and schools. That’s why PFAW Foundation is working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Kodak, the Ad Council, and a wide range of allied organizations on a national campaign that educates, encourages and energizes parents in communities of color to be effectively involved in their children’s education. Television, radio, print, and outdoor advertisements in English and Spanish have received over $14 million in placements in the first quarter of this year. Thousands of parents have received valuable tips and information from the SchoolSuccessInfo.org Web site. And this fall, thousands of parents will receive parental involvement “tool kits” at back-to-school rallies organized by NAACP chapters and other partnering organizations.
These are the kinds of programs that can help build crucial community support for schools. But teachers and parents cannot build stronger schools if public policy is simultaneously undermining that goal.
People For the American Way is proud to be a partner with Florida’s Coalition to Reduce Class Size in the campaign to win passage of Amendment 9.