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School fund boost goes to class size

Foes of the class size amendment say it eats up new money for education. Others say more funds can be found.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published April 29, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - More than half the new money the Legislature budgeted for Florida public schools next year will be used to reduce class sizes, leaving next to nothing for raises, insurance and other rising costs.

Education Commissioner Jim Horne and other Republican leaders say they will use that fact to try to persuade voters to repeal a constitutional amendment requiring smaller classes.

"Why is everyone shocked?" Horne asked Wednesday. "Why is everyone walking around and saying this is expensive? We couldn't have made it more clear."

But amendment supporters said Republican leaders are deliberately shortchanging education to build opposition to the class size amendment voters approved in 2002.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Horne campaigned fruitlessly against the amendment, arguing that it would force tax hikes and divert money from other programs.

"I just don't buy it," said Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "They are more focused on discrediting the amendment than rolling up their sleeves and trying to get it done."

Next year's state spending plan, expected to be approved by legislators Friday, includes a $970-million increase, a 7.1 percent increase, for public schools. That includes 3.6 percent for class size reduction and 2.5 percent to accommodate 55,000 expected new students.

That leaves 1 percent for rising costs, such as gasoline prices and teacher raises.

Some school officials say they will lose money in this deal.

"Education is a paramount duty of the state," said Steve Swartzel, director of governmental services for Pinellas schools. "It certainly requires that more than 1 percent be spent."

Despite state officials touting the 7.1 percent rise in education spending, schools likely will have less to work with next year than this year.

"Ask any teacher how Florida can keep high-quality teachers and he or she will say that you must keep class sizes small and offer better teacher salaries," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who led the campaign to pass the class size amendment. "Once again, Gov. Bush has tried to pit these two needs against each other and play games with our children's future."

Meek said the governor's priorities are wrong. "He's given away nearly $2-billion in tax cuts, prioritizing his corporate buddies and hurting both our students and teachers in the process," Meek said. "These cuts could have solved our state's education problems. . . . Voters will see right through this pathetic political rhetoric and recognize Gov. Bush and Florida Republicans' flawed economic policies."

Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said the governor has done nothing to hurt education.

"It's unfortunate that someone would use politics to take away from the tremendous gains we are seeing in student achievement in Florida," he said. "Gov. Bush's record on funding education and creating a system that rewards higher standards and accountability is undeniable."

Democrats complain that in his first year as governor Bush devoted 55.4 percent of the state budget to education. Next year, it will be 50.5 percent.

This is the second year Bush and the Legislature have been required to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce class size.

Bush, who has said voters didn't know what they were doing when they approved the measure, wants the amendment repealed. Legislators began working on an amendment to do that but it lost steam in recent weeks. Horne said Bush now prefers that a repeal effort start with the public, not the Legislature.

Other groups, like the Florida School Boards Association, say they also may try to persuade the public to repeal the amendment.

"It might be something that has to be done," said Wayne Blanton, association director. "More and more money is going into class size. It's getting worse every year."

The class size amendment requires that by the year 2010 no more than 18 students be assigned to each teacher in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades four through eight, and 25 in high school classes. Schools must make incremental progress toward that goal starting this school year, reducing classes by an average of two children per year.

Cost estimates range from $8-billion to $27.5-billion over the eight-year phase-in. The greatest costs will be in later years, when the mandate moves from averages among schools to averages among individual classrooms.

School officials say lawmakers take money away from public schools to pay for the class size amendment instead of taking it from other parts of state government.

Sen. Lee Constantine, the Altamonte Springs Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the school districts are getting a "substantial increase" next year and are complaining simply because they can't spend the money their way.

"I have never heard any administrator of a school district say they got enough money," Constantine said.

Some state leaders say there is no guarantee schools would have gotten the class size money for other expenses, and that education would have to compete with other state needs, like health care.

[Last modified April 29, 2004, 01:50:19]


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