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Bush aiming to repeal class size measure
The governor offers no concrete game plan to reverse the voter-approved amendment.
By JONI JAMES
Published December 8, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Fresh from repealing Florida's plans to build a high-speed train, an emboldened Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday vowed once again to try to repeal a controversial, voter-approved plan to shrink Florida's class sizes.
But Bush said he hasn't decided exactly how to renew his assault on the 2002 constitutional amendment that was pushed by Democrats and the state's teachers' union.
He would need to convince lawmakers to place the measure on the ballot or push a citizen's initiative, such as last month's Amendment 6, which reversed a 2000 voter decision to mandate a high-speed train. The repeal was backed by Bush and other state officials.
What voters said they wanted Two years ago, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes. By the 2010 school year, every classroom in the state will be limited to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades 4 through 8, and 25 students in high school. The plan is being phased in over eight years:
Starting last year, school districts had to reduce their district-wide class size average by two students, a standard most had little trouble meeting.
In 2006-07, it gets tougher. Compliance will be measured on a school-by-school average.
In 2008-09, the standard changes to an actual student count for every classroom rather than an average.
Either way, the earliest voters would likely consider the question on class size is November 2006.
Which avenue to take is "a post-Christmas holiday decision," Bush told reporters Tuesday. "Nothing (in the past two years) has changed in terms of the significant impact on school life to implement this provision."
Bush's comments revive one of the most contentious issues of a governor who early on dubbed himself an "education governor."
The 2002 voter mandate requires the state by 2010 to cap class sizes to no more than 18 students for kindergarten through third grade; 22 for fourth- through eighth-grade classes; and 25 for high school. More than 52 percent of Florida voters approved the measure, which was particularly popular among South Florida constituencies where schools are the most crowded.
Proponents predicted they could thwart Bush again.
"It's deja vu," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, the one-time state legislator who orchestrated the class-size citizen's initiative after several unsuccessful attempts of getting it heard in the Legislature.
"We go back and forth. But at the end of the day, class size is the best thing that has happened to Florida's children," Meek said. "I'm 110 percent convinced and parents are, too."
It's the third assault Bush has launched on the class size measure. During 2002, while campaigning for re-election, Bush warned it would crash the state budget. In 2003, he urged the Legislature to ask voters to repeal the measure, saying it would "block out the sun" due to economists' estimate it could cost upward of $10-billion in construction funds alone by 2010. He warned tax increases might be required.
On Tuesday Bush contended the fiscal impact still hasn't been felt. He predicted the toughest financial constraints will come in 2008 and beyond when the class-size requirements - now enforced only through countywide averages - will be enforced on a school-by-school average.
Bush's plans, told to reporters in an informal question period, were unexpected Tuesday after nearly a year hiatus. With Bush's brother, President Bush, up for re-election, Florida Republicans avoided the issue in 2004.
But Bush's push appears to stand a better chance just a month after his big win through a citizen's initiative and with new legislative leadership atop an even stronger Republican majority.
Earlier this year - frustrated by lawmakers' inaction - Bush jumped behind a business-backed citizen's initiative seeking to repeal the 2000 voter mandate to build a high-speed train across Florida. A whopping 64 percent of voters concurred.
Towson Fraser, House Speaker Allan Bense's spokesman, said Tuesday that Bense, a Panama City contractor, "has never liked the class size amendment" and was looking forward to discussing options with the governor.
Even Senate President Tom Lee, a Brandon developer, said he was willing to consider the issue, breaking what had been taboo in the Senate until now: asking voters to reverse themselves.
But Lee said he doubts the Senate would ever approve an outright reversal of the class size measure. They might be willing to ask voters to embrace some kind of hybrid, such as a scheme offered last year that would mandate small classes only in the primary years.
"I'm not sure an outright ban is the direction that the Senate would take," Lee said.
It takes a three-fifths vote by both chambers of the Legislature to qualify a proposed constitutional amendment for a general election. To hold the vote before November 2006, a three-fourths vote by both chambers is required, an unlikely prospect in the Senate where the 30 votes needed would have to include at least four Democrats.
Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami, a proponent of the class size measure, predicts it will still be a hard sell for Republicans. He and other Democrats have argued that the state could afford the program if Republicans would stop passing tax breaks, which now top more than $10-billion in the past six years.
"You don't win votes by telling people they shouldn't want their kids to be in smaller classes," Gelber said Tuesday. "Most people have a sense that first-graders shouldn't be in class with 32 kids."