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Bush rebuffed on class sizes
The Senate rejects the governor's bids to revamp the class size amendment and expand the school vouchers program.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published May 6, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush suffered a major political defeat Thursday when the Florida Senate resoundingly rejected his two top education priorities, an overhaul of the class size amendment and an expansion of school vouchers.
The class size proposal needed the support of three-fifths of the 40 senators to qualify for the November 2006 ballot. But Bush, who made his opposition to class sizes the linchpin of his re-election in 2002, could not even muster a majority.
His proposal failed 21-19.
It was the second time the Legislature ignored the governor's call to repeal the class size amendment.
Seven Republicans, including three from the Tampa Bay area, joined all 14 Democrats to oppose the measure, which would have asked voters to calculate class size averages at district-wide levels rather than at each school. In exchange, the amendment guaranteed teachers a minimum starting salary of $35,000.
Later Thursday, the Senate approved an amendment killing another of Bush's education priorities: taxpayer-funded vouchers to any child who fails the reading FCAT three years in a row.
More than 170,000 students would have qualified for the voucher, which Bush called the Reading Compact Scholarship.
But it was the class size amendment that stirred the most passion, both for Bush and the Senate.
Several senators called Bush's plan an insult to voters, who passed the amendment to the state Constitution in 2002. The measure received 52 percent of the vote.
"We have not had one administrator, one schoolteacher or one parent that cares a bit about putting this back on the ballot," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, who voted no. "The governor needs to reset his priorities. He needs to look in the mirror and see what's good for Florida. Obviously, this isn't it."
Bush said he was disappointed and said Floridians will have to "deal with the enormous magnitude of financial costs" of the amendment.
The Republican governor still has one more legislative session before leaving office to try to pass his plan. But 2006 is an election year and seven senators, including three Republicans, will be up for re-election. That could make it even harder for Bush.
It was the latest show of defiance against a governor who has enjoyed significant legislative support the past seven years. But Bush has repeatedly encountered resistance from a small band of moderate Republican senators. The House, however, has backed Bush, passing both the class size amendment and the voucher program Monday.
"Obviously, it's a disappointment to Jeb," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who voted in favor of Bush's class size plan. "But he's got incredibly high favorable ratings for what might best be described as a lame-duck governor. He's still got plenty of power and plenty of oomph."
Several of Bush's other top priorities, including a Medicaid overhaul and growth management, are struggling and may not pass by the time the session ends tonight.
Nine Republican senators also refused to side with Bush in March in his efforts to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reconnected.
This is the second year in a row the Legislature has ignored Bush's call to repeal the class size caps, which he has opposed from the start. During his 2002 re-election campaign, he warned it would demolish the state budget. The following year, he urged the Legislature to ask voters to repeal it, saying it would "block out the sun" because of economists' estimates that put the final cost as high as $28-billion by 2010.
Thursday's Senate debate was brief but passionate.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, a former teacher and the sponsor of the amendment, warned her colleagues it may the only chance they have to make significant increases to teachers' salaries.
"It's difficult for a teacher to be standing before you to try to speak for every other teacher in this state as I have done for years and try to get you all to come up with the money to take care of us properly," Lynn said. "You have not done that."
Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said voters didn't know the true cost of the class size measure when they approved it.
"They have a right to know the implications of this measure," Pruitt said. "And this Legislature has a responsibility to make sure we take the appropriate steps to make them aware of them."
But the higher teacher pay did not sway three South Florida Republicans whose districts stood to lose the most because their schools are the most overcrowded and starting teacher pay already is near $35,000.
Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said the state's funding formula for schools was flawed and revising class size requirements would only make it worse. He said his conscience forced him to oppose the plan.
"I'm going to vote no on this constitutional amendment," Villalobos told his colleagues. "You know how I'm going to sleep tonight? Like a baby."
The voucher program was cut from Bush's sweeping education package with a voice vote. Lynn, the sponsor of the program, even introduced the amendment to kill it.
King said senators were reluctant to expand vouchers just weeks before the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to decide their constitutionality.
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Joni James and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.