Class size push gets spot on ballot
By STEPHEN HEGARTY and LUCY MORGAN
Despite opposition from the governor and key lawmakers, a group proposing a constitutional amendment limiting class size in Florida's public schools has earned a spot on the Nov. 5 ballot.
State elections officials verified Thursday afternoon that the Coalition to Reduce Class Size collected more than the necessary 488,722 signatures. Earlier in the day, the group held a news conference to celebrate.
"This is a day we've been waiting a long time for," said Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, leader of the coalition. "Thanks to parents and teachers, today we are announcing we have the petitions to put the issue on the ballot."
The amendment to reduce class size is the ninth initiative to make it onto the ballot. Others are expected to qualify soon, ensuring that the ballot will be loaded with initiatives and controversy.
The prospect of smaller class sizes obviously appeals to voters and parents. But the potential price tag scares lawmakers.
"People need to know, this isn't going to be for free," said incoming Senate President Jim King. "I don't like to use the T word for taxes, but I want the voters to know we have no other choice."
State economists have estimated that reducing class sizes would cost Florida $27.5-billion for the first seven years and $2.5-billion every year after that. The amendment says the state, and not school districts, would have to find a way to pay for it.
"To achieve this we're either going to have to raise taxes in a serious way or we're going to have to cut programs like senior programs," Gov. Jeb Bush said during a campaign stop at a retirement center in Fort Myers.
Lawmakers passed a law requiring a price tag on the ballot next to the initiatives, but last month a judge ruled that law unconstitutional.
In collecting the signatures around the state, the class size coalition got help from the Florida NAACP, the FEA teachers union and the group People for the American Way.
Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, joined Meek at the news conference Thursday and called the inclusion of the amendment on the ballot "a historic moment for Florida and the nation."
Neas said he would like to "see Jeb Bush and Kendrick Meek arm-in-arm, working on this amendment." But it seems clear that the amendment backers are campaigning both for the amendment and against the governor and Republican lawmakers who oppose it.
At one point Meek referred to Bush as "pharaoh," an indication of the lingering animosity that began in early 2000 when Meek and another legislator staged a sit-in in the offices of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.
The amendment would allow a maximum of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in high school.
Some groups that might be expected to support the measure are reluctant to do so, given the cost and the fact that it would be mandated in the state Constitution.
For instance, the Florida PTA does not support it.
"We support reduced class size; we have for years," said PTA president Patty Hightower. "But we took a vote on supporting this amendment and it failed.
"Believe me, a lot of the signatures came from our PTA members," Hightower said. "But officially, we do not support it. It's a tough one."
King said he thinks the measure has a good chance of passing in November. He said he will work to let voters know that a "yes" vote will mean cuts in services or higher taxes.
"If it passes, I know I've got a serious financial problem," King said. "The last person I know of who was asked to do so much with so little, at least started out with loaves and fishes."
-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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From the Times state desk
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