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Class size drive given NAACP nod

The group's education director speaks at USF to support the constitutional amendment initiative. Students, teachers and schools are being shortchanged, he says.

By RYAN MEEHAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 27, 2002


TAMPA -- The director of education for the NAACP says it's all about priorities. Spend money to build jails and give tax breaks to special interest groups? Or use that money to invest in education?

"This is really a no-brainer," John Jackson said Wednesday morning, speaking at the University of South Florida.

The problem: Florida public schools are packed. Students are getting a raw deal, he said. Teachers are underpaid, and schools are understaffed.

The solution, Johnson said, is a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that limits the number of students in the classroom and requires the Legislature to fund it.

Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, is spearheading the proposal. In April, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a bid to keep the initiative off the November ballot. Now Meek and the Coalition to Reduce Class Size need to verify the more than 503,000 signatures they've collected. If at least 488,000 are deemed legitimate, the proposal will be placed on the November ballot.

The plan calls for hiring more teachers, raising teacher salaries and building more schools. In eight years, class sizes would shrink to no more than 18 students per classroom in prekindergarten through third grade; 22 per classroom in fourth through eighth grade; and 25 students per classroom in ninth through 12th grade.

The estimated cost is $8-billion to $10-billion. Without more precise numbers, Gov. Jeb Bush has been slow to take a stand on the idea.

"The governor says he wants to wait for numbers," Jackson said. "But children don't have time to wait for numbers. Teachers don't have time to wait for numbers."

Coalition spokesman Damien Filer said he is sure the 488,000 signatures will be verified. And he predicted that once the initiative is on the ballot, voters will pass it.

Critics are certain to ask where the money will come from. Filer says that's where the Legislature must come through.

"If such an overwhelming majority of Floridians call for this to happen, the Legislature will really be in a position to uphold the will of the voters," he said.

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