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Class-size tiff leaves Jeb grinning like Cheshire

Published August 23, 2005

Did you ever play Monopoly with somebody who quoted the rules to keep you from doing something, and turned out to be right when you looked it up?

I bet your first reaction was probably not, "I am grateful to be playing with someone who knows the rules so well."

No? How about this experience?

Did you ever get a traffic ticket when you knew the officer had you dead to rights, but you resented it anyway because he seemed to enjoy writing you up?

Let us now cast Gov. Jeb Bush and his appointees to the state Board of Education in the role of unpopular enforcers.

Bush's school folks recently made an important declaration about Florida's class-size amendment, which the voters passed in 2002 to be phased in by 2010.

They ruled that the use of "co-teachers," a growing practice, can't be used when calculating average class sizes.

In other words, if a classroom has 30 kids and two co-teachers, that doesn't make the "average" class size 15. It's still just one class with 30 kids.

When this decision was made public, there was a certain amount of booing and hissing, especially among Jeb's usual chorus of education critics.

If co-teachers don't bring down average class sizes, a lot of Florida counties will have to scramble to come up with more classrooms starting in 2006-07.

At the moment, there are more than 8,000 classrooms in Florida with more than one teacher, state figures say. There are 832 in Hillsborough, 375 in Pinellas, 190 in Hernando and 46 in Citrus.

Hardest hit locally is Pasco County, with 790 to 900, depending on who's counting. Pasco has relied heavily on co-teachers for students with exceptional needs. A Pasco official calls this a "perfect example of bureaucrats making decisions about things they know nothing about."

It's not that co-teachers are banned. They're not banned. They just won't count toward smaller class sizes. And local school districts are under orders to get smaller. It's gonna cost a bundle.

To drive that last point home with a flourish, the state Board of Education just proposed a budget for next year that would gobble up 92 cents out of every new dollar the state is expected to take in. Impossible.

Here is why this ruling is especially galling to Jeb's critics.

The governor has always hated the class-size amendment. He opposed it from the beginning. He resented the voters for ramming it down his throat. So do most of his top appointees. He would love to get it repealed, as he did the bullet train.

Now Jeb's folks have come up with a ruling that makes the class-size amendment all the more painful, expensive and burdensome. "See? See?" they are asking, at least figuratively. "Didn't we warn you silly voters not to make us do this?"

And yet, despite all this, Jeb's folks have a good case.

There is not much wiggle room in the Constitution. Class sizes must eventually be either 18, 22 or 25, depending on grade level. And with no disrespect to Pasco, plenty of places are using co-teachers to fudge the numbers. The use of co-teachers around the state has more than doubled since the amendment was passed. It is an open debate as to how much this truly makes large classes more manageable.

Even the backers of the amendment grudgingly agree that the ruling is correct, and in keeping with the spirit of their campaign. In a different context, a governor who did this might be praised.

So we are in a weird place:

  • The governor, enemy of the class-size amendment, is at the moment its most harsh enforcer.

  • His critics are mad at him for not letting them fudge on its requirements.

  • The Republican-run Legislature, which didn't like the amendment any more than Bush, now will use Bush as the bad guy. Lawmakers will duck their fiscal responsibility to pay for smaller classes (which is the key point) and curry favor by creating loopholes.

    As for the governor, he flips down his sunglasses, hands over the citation and strides back to his cruiser, grinning as he utters the parting words of ticket-writers everywhere: "Have a nice day." One can only grip the steering wheel and mutter.

    [Last modified August 23, 2005, 12:03:17]

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