tampabay.com

Voters speak; Handy should listen

A Times Editorial
Published September 30, 2006


Fewer children are being crammed into each public school classroom these days, but the chairman of the Florida Board of Education still resents it. In what has become a rite of autumn, Phil Handy's board last week offered a 2007-08 spending plan with a "gargantuan" increase for class size reduction.

Handy, a former campaign fundraiser for Gov. Jeb Bush, has been red in the face ever since voters approved the constitutional mandate in 2002. But Handy, whose credentials for the job are almost entirely political, might want to pay attention to the 2006 campaign trail. Florida is about to elect a new governor who wants to follow the voters' wishes on class size. Both Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat Jim Davis say they are ready to move on.

Can Handy and the Department of Education do the same?

Every year since the vote, Handy has stubbornly insisted that voters were hoodwinked and that paying for smaller classes will all but bankrupt the state. Every year, though, lawmakers have managed to pay for class size and reduce taxes at the same time.

Rather than seek a credible compromise, Handy and Bush have offered only political barter. Last year, the governor said he would raise teacher salaries if voters would repeal the class size mandate. This year, he said he would direct more money to the classroom by use of a publicity gimmick promising 65 cents of every dollar. No wonder Bush failed to convince lawmakers to put these initiatives on the ballot.

Next year, a new governor will offer his own spending plan and priorities for schools, and neither Crist nor Davis talks in apocalyptic terms about the costs of reducing class sizes. The contrast with Handy couldn't be more striking. At the Board of Education's recent budget meeting, Handy seemed almost repulsed by a recommendation for an 8.8 percent increase in per-student spending.

"Just in the public policy debate about spending on public education and teaching and so forth," he said, "these are gargantuan increases. Every company in America would love to have these kinds of increases."

Crist and Davis don't seem to begrudge any increase that would help Florida classrooms begin to catch up with the rest of America. They don't seem embittered by the voters' call for a greater investment in education. Maybe the next governor, Republican or Democrat, will want a DOE that doesn't view anxious parents as the enemy.