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Keeping our promise in reducing class size

By KENDRICK MEEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2002


In the months leading up to Nov. 5, Florida engaged in an unprecedented public debate about classroom overcrowding. Advocates and opponents made their case, and Florida voters made their decision: They want the Legislature to provide the necessary funding to reduce class sizes.

In the months leading up to Nov. 5, Florida engaged in an unprecedented public debate about classroom overcrowding. Advocates and opponents made their case, and Florida voters made their decision: They want the Legislature to provide the necessary funding to reduce class sizes.

This mandate for education reform marks a historic turning point for our state, but today there isn't one classroom that is any less overcrowded than it was on Election Day. Now it is critical for all of us to come together and carry out the will of voters to do something about the crisis of classroom overcrowding.

Unfortunately, too much of the debate before the election was tangled up in the gubernatorial campaign and centered on an inflated estimate of what class size reduction will cost. Florida voters sent a clear signal that we can't afford not to reduce class sizes, but how much implementation will cost and how we pay for it must still be addressed.

A St. Petersburg Times article recently noted, "If standard budget practices had been followed, the estimate calculated by state budget analysts would be cut by more than half." Edward Montanaro, former director of the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR), said the approach taken by political appointees to inflate the price tag of the class size initiative "fundamentally misrepresents the situation." EDR estimates Amendment 9 will actually cost between $4- and $12-billion over eight years. Even using EDR's midrange estimate of about $8-billion, the annual cost would amount to about $1-billion out of an annual state budget that exceeds $50-billion. This is less than half of what will be drained away from the state budget over the next eight years by special interest tax cuts.

Florida currently ranks 50th out of 50 states in per-capita education spending. If we merely invested in our public schools at the national average, students would reap the benefits of an additional $2.6-billion in education funding every year -- more than enough to reduce class sizes and begin to address other critical education reforms such as increasing teacher salaries. Further, Alan Krueger of Princeton University wrote recently that each $1 invested in class size reduction produces $2 in benefits.

Legislation I sponsored to create a "Maximum Class Size Funding Commission" responsible for the fiscal administration of reducing class size passed the Florida Senate earlier this year. We should build on this legislation to determine a stable source of funding for implementation. The previously adopted Senate language stated: "The commission may consider all potential revenue-generating options, except that a recommendation may not require a local funding source and may not require any supplantation of funds from existing programs or operations." Local school districts are already overburdened and critical services provided by the state need not be jeopardized to pay for class size reduction.

Outgoing Republican Senate President John McKay and incoming Democratic leaders have outlined many options that would allow Florida to generate revenue without raising taxes on working families or cutting services that our seniors and children depend on.

As President McKay pointed out, every year the state collects an estimated $17-billion in sales taxes, while exempting an estimated $23-billion. While some of the exemptions are justifiable, too many are loopholes for special interests. Some of the most infamous exemptions include adult entertainment, ostrich feed and sports arena skyboxes. Revenue from these outmoded and extravagant subsidies -- like the $2-million every year for the Golf Hall of Fame -- must be reviewed in light of our critical education needs.

Other funding options meriting review include recommendations by incoming Democratic leaders and Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has recommended borrowing against a telecommunications tax to produce $2.8-billion. A portion of lottery revenues could also be bonded to produce as much as $2.4-billion. Sen. Ron Klein and Rep. Doug Wiles recently noted that using the K-12 share of the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) program over the implementation period of Amendment 9 would yield another $1.9-billion, and that there is still $450-million available from the Classrooms First program.

Research shows that smaller classes improve learning, strengthen discipline, reduce dropout rates and raise students' grade-point averages. That is why Amendment 9 has been formally endorsed by education experts from the nation's leading class size reduction programs, including Tennessee's Project STAR and Wisconsin's SAGE program. Florida is fortunate to have a head start when it comes to implementing class size reduction. We can learn from states such as Tennessee and Wisconsin that have been successful in reducing their class sizes.

Our coalition will work with Florida parents and educators as well as nationally renowned class size reduction experts to develop a comprehensive strategy for the implementation of Amendment 9. This amendment will be a model to the nation, and we must prepare to lead by setting goals with clearly defined accountability measures.

So what happens next? The amendment states, "Beginning with the 2003-2004 fiscal year, the Legislature shall provide sufficient funds to reduce the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year" over the eight-year implementation period. Once fully implemented, the amendment calls for a maximum class size of 18 in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade; 22 in 4th through 8th grade, and 25 in high school. Reducing the average number of students in a classroom during the implementation period will allow the Legislature and local school districts the flexibility they need to comply with the requirements. It is also important to note that the amendment does not apply to extracurricular classes such as physical education and chorus.

The coalition is encouraged that state leaders are already meeting with educators and administrators to determine how best to proceed with implementation. But, after the failed promise that the lottery would bring more dollars to education, voters are wary of the Legislature turning from Dr. Jeckyll to Mr. Hyde.

The meetings last week raised questions about the definitions and parameters of the amendment, such as: Are the averages determined by school or district? What is the definition of a classroom? And, what happens when the so-called "19th child" arrives after the caps are in place?

Some of these basic nuts-and-bolts questions can be answered right away. To allow local school districts the flexibility they need to implement the amendment, averages should be calculated by the district as opposed to on a school-to-school basis. A classroom is a permanent structure with one class and one teacher. The "19th child" question is really a red herring. EDR has already determined that children won't need to be bused to comply with the amendment. This amendment requires the Legislature to provide "sufficient funds" to reduce class sizes. If more children arrive at a school during the year, the Legislature will have to take that into consideration when they determine the funding levels for the following year.

We believe the Legislature will benefit from allowing as much public testimony as possible and, to that end, we support the creation of a special legislative committee to address class size reduction. Such a committee could consider recommendations already compiled by national experts, who stress accountability measures to evaluate test scores, discipline, attendance, teacher morale and parental involvement after class sizes are reduced.

Amendment 9 is a beacon of hope for Florida, and our coalition made a promise to voters that we would follow through after Election Day to ensure class size reduction is implemented according to sound fiscal policy and established best practices.

During the Legislature's organizational session last week, state leaders put their hands on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution -- a Constitution amended by Florida voters to require the Legislature provide adequate funds to reduce class sizes. We look forward to working with state leaders to ensure these promises are kept.

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-- Kendrick Meek, a former state senator and newly elected U.S. representative from Miami-Dade, created Amendment 9 to reduce class size.

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