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    A Times Editorial

    No on Amendment 9

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 27, 2002

    Amendment 9 was born of a genuine frustration with Florida's assembly-line public education system. Only five states put more students in each classroom, and not a single state packs more into each school. Talk to most any parent and you'll hear the concern: How can my kindergartner pay attention with 26 others in the same room?

    Unquestionably, schoolchildren deserve better. But this is not the way.

    The amendment, placed on the Nov. 5 ballot through a statewide petition initiative led by Sen. Kendrick Meek, would use the state Constitution to force a transformation that would affect every single classroom in every single school in Florida. Under the provision, no more than 18 students would be allowed in each classroom in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high schools. The state would have eight years to get the job done.

    As a protagonist in this fight, Meek brings an uplifting spirit. "You can't have lecture halls for first-grade," he says. "We've got to give public education a fighting chance."

    Meek's aim is right, but his weapon is wrong. A rigid constitutional prescription for such a momentous educational shift invites unintended consequences. How easily might the state change course if districts found, for example, that they could not hire enough qualified teachers in time? What if districts couldn't build new schools fast enough to house the necessary extra classrooms? How much latitude would be granted to deviate from class size limits should individual schools want to change the mix? What would be the legal repercussion if the Legislature failed to provide enough money to get the job done?

    The scale of class size reduction this amendment seeks, from kindergarten to 12th grade, has not been tried in any other state. California reduced class sizes in only K-3 in 1996, and ended up hiring many unqualified teachers and using portable classrooms. Though the Florida amendment avoids the California mistake of trying to reduce class sizes all in one year, it also seeks to transform three times as many grades and do so at a time when the market for qualified teachers is already bleak.

    The Meek constitutional amendment might indeed serve as a big club, threatening lawmakers to do right by schoolchildren. But a schoolyard scrap is likely to leave more than just the rival gang with bruises and broken bones. And that's the danger here.

    The impulse to support this amendment will be understandably strong. When it comes to education, Florida's one consistent approach has been that it is cheap. Look around. Some third-grade classes have 35 students. Portable classrooms are an industry. Instructional periods have been reduced in middle and high schools, foreign languages and music dropped from most elementary schools, summer classes eliminated altogether in many districts. Teachers leave to get paid more in Georgia.

    To oppose this amendment, though, is not to oppose reductions in class size or necessary increases in school spending. In fact, win or lose, Meek's greatest contribution to Florida schools may be the extent to which this debate has exposed the hypocrisy in current education policy. Gov. Jeb Bush and his education secretary, Jim Horne, want better schools as long as they don't cost much.

    The hysterical campaign against this amendment helps explain why Meek turned to the constitutional initiative in the first place. To hear Bush and Horne tell it, Amendment 9 is nothing short of a plot to destroy Florida's public schools. Bush says it will "block out the sun." Horne calls it the "Armageddon of funding." Their education department at one point produced a nonsensical report asserting that larger class sizes are actually better. They have employed pedestrian political scare tactics, warning that smaller class sizes could lead to less law enforcement, social services or elderly care. They have argued that qualified teachers are more important than smaller class size, as though schools are forbidden from having both.

    The reason for their panic is that small class sizes will cost a large chunk of money. Bill McBride , the Democratic candidate for governor and a supporter of the amendment, estimates that it could cost as much as $15-billion. Another estimate, one supplied by respected state economist Ed Montanaro, is $6.6-billion for new classrooms and $1.9-billion annually to staff them. That's a lot of money, but here's one way to put the number in perspective: In his first year as governor, Bush pushed through $1.5-billion in tax breaks. Here's another way: Florida could pay for class size reduction and still spend less per student than the national average.

    We recommend a NO vote on Amendment 9, because it is simply too brittle a tool for such a sweeping change. But we also urge voters to take note of the educational charlatans who offer no alternatives. Four years ago, candidate Bush wrote, "I am convinced that smaller is always better than bigger when it comes to teaching kids." Now his education secretary says that putting 22 students in a fourth-grade class amounts to Armageddon. Pay attention, parents. This debate has been clarifying.

    Ballot summary

    Proposes an amendment to the state Constitution to require that the Legislature provide funding for sufficient classrooms so that there be a maximum number of students in public school classes for various grade levels; requires compliance by the beginning of the 2010 school year; requires the Legislature, and not local school districts, to pay for the costs associated with reduced class size; prescribes a schedule for phased-in funding to achieve the required maximum class size.

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