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    NAACP: State bias harms black students

    The civil rights group intends to complain to federal authorities about alleged discrimination and campaign for a smaller class-size referendum.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 20, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- The NAACP staged a two-front attack on Florida's education system Wednesday, accusing the state of discriminating against minority students and vowing to take action to stop it.

    The organization plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education civil rights office, alleging that minority students are more often suspended, expelled, moved into special education programs and stuck in crowded classrooms, an NAACP official said.

    The group also plans to campaign for an amendment to the Florida Constitution to reduce class sizes.

    The group decided to complain to the federal government after Florida failed to submit a plan for cutting the alleged racial disparities in half, and because Gov. Jeb Bush refused to support a constitutional amendment to lower class sizes, said John H. Jackson, national director of education for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

    "In 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court mandated equity in education across the nation," Jackson said, referring to the landmark decision that found separate schools for blacks inherently unconstitutional.

    "Some 48 years later, we still find that we see racial disparity in states across the nation," Jackson said.

    His assertion came after Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne released a report that he said shows that smaller classes do not guarantee a better education in Florida elementary schools.

    Horne and Education Board chairman Phil Handy said the report's release was not intended to sway voters against a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes, an initiative sought by state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami.

    "Board members asked for the information," Horne said.

    The report found that the 580 elementary schools with A grades last year had a median class size of 24.1 students, while 41 F schools had a median class size of 19.9 students.

    State officials say those F schools have smaller class sizes because they get extra funding from the federal government because they have more poor students. But state officials are just as quick to note that many schools with the same demographics got A's and B's.

    "At the very least you can say there is no correlation between high performance and lower class size," said Handy, who opposes the amendment.

    But Democrats mocked the report, suggesting that Bush will next announce his "A+

    One Teacher Per County Plan" that "would increase class size, improve school performance and save money."

    "If you take the administration's position that better schools have larger class sizes to its logical conclusion, instead of investing in smaller class size, Jeb Bush would prefer to establish super-sized classes at football stadiums and arenas where thousands of students would share the same teacher," said Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe.

    Jackson said he found it hard to believe that Horne's report wasn't intended to sway voters against the class size amendment. "I think it's a direct attempt to address the people's efforts to reduce class size," Jackson said.

    The NAACP announced plans for a two-week, 11-stop bus tour that started Wednesday to gather enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. The Florida Supreme Court already has approved the wording of the amendment, and petition organizers say they have gathered nearly all the roughly 500,000 signatures needed.

    The class-size measure would require no more than 18 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth grade through eighth grade and 25 students in high school. The mandate would be phased in between 2003 and 2010, and one estimate places the cost as high as $12-billion a year.

    A spokeswoman for Bush said the NAACP was "playing political games" and ignoring the progress the first-term Republican governor has made on closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

    -- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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