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California schools could offer us a lesson

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- It has been five years since Charlie Reed, who had been chancellor of our university system for 12 years, departed for a better place with a quip that Florida's state motto ought to be "We're cheap, and proud of it."

Reed is now chancellor of the California state university system, the nation's largest.

He left a large part of his heart in Florida, however, and isn't shy about continuing to offer advice. Earlier, he likened the replacement of the Board of Regents with individual university boards of trustees to a "goat rodeo." Sure enough, the once well-disciplined universities have become feudal baronies vying to see which can pay a new president the most money.

Now Reed has scathing words for the university presidents -- some of whom had been his picks -- for opposing the initiative, Amendment 9, that would reduce class sizes in public schools.

"How short-sighted can they be?," he said. "How selfish can they be? I would never begrudge the public schools getting the resources."

In coming out against the initiative last month, the presidents were plainly jealous of the money the initiative would cost.

"It's too inflexible," said their spokesman, John Hitt of the University of Central Florida, a holdover from the Reed regime. "It would soak up so much funding."

That position pleased Gov. Jeb Bush, who fears the initiative as much if not more than his Democratic opponent (whomever that may be) but it was certain to offend Reed.

A few months before accepting the California job, Reed had testified to the Constitution Revision Commission that Florida's top priority for any new money should not be the universities.

"Preparing children to be ready to learn in school," he said. "That's not the business I'm in, but I'm convinced it would be the best investment for our state."

Remembering the incident (such altruism is notably rare in Florida), I called Reed the other day to ask whether he'd be voting for Amendment 9 if he still lived here.

Yes, he said.

What's more, "I would be supporting it because it makes good sense."

In California, Reed said, he expects universities to eventually reap substantial benefits from a class-size reduction plan that state's Legislature adopted six years ago. It was targeted only at kindergarten through third grade, with a limit of 20 children per teacher. (The Florida initiative, Amendment 9, sets a goal of 18 by the year 2010 in K-3, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in grades 9-12).

"We're starting to see some payoffs in academics, especially in reading, from the smaller class size," Reed said. Conceding there were "plenty of problems" in terms of not enough classrooms and not enough experienced teachers, Reed said "they're good problems to have" if the results are that students are learning better.

"We have been struggling to meet the demand, but if you look at the reading scores and the math scores, they are improving the California public schools."

Perhaps those California kids could produce better numbers than the funny math with which Bush and legislative bosses are attacking the popular class-size amendment.

As my colleague Steve Hegarty reported recently, the $27.5-billion price tag they favor piles up numbers unlike any other state budget estimate. Normally, there is a one-time charge for additional construction and an annualized cost for operations -- in this case, new teachers. By that standard, the initiative would cost $6.6-billion for buildings, and about $1.9-billion a year in salaries and other operating expenses. That's well within the reach of a penny sales tax increase or legislation repealing selected special-interest exemptions.

Those figures come from Ed Montanaro, the Legislature's former chief economist, who dissented to the rigged estimate. (Now you begin to see why it was time for him to quit.)

But this isn't the first time Bush has stacked the books. In presenting his last budget, including more tax cuts that the Senate would accept, the governor boasted that he would have delivered $6-billion in tax relief (mostly to owners of taxable stocks and bonds) by the end of his term.

Does that mean $6-billion a year? No, $6-billion accumulated over four years. He could as easily have said $12-billion (for eight years) or $24-billion for 16. The realistic figure would be the annual average, about $1.5-billion.

What an interesting coincidence: Those tax cuts alone could have just about paid for the class size initiative.

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