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Amendment 8 asks Florida voters to reconsider class sizes

The most important fight in Florida this year is not about Republicans and Democrats, or rich guys trying to buy public office.

It's about how much direct power the voters of a democracy will take — and keep.

Will voters seize direct control of growth in this state, by passing Amendment 4? Will they pass Amendments 5 and 6 to require "fair districts" for Congress and the Legislature?

Amendment 8 is part of this tug-of-war, too. The government is asking Florida voters to step back from the strict limits on classroom sizes that they passed in 2002 after a citizen petition.

Not coincidentally, this is the year that the final, toughest limits of the 2002 amendment take effect. They are:

• 18 students per classroom in prekindergarten through Grade 3.

• 22 students in Grades 4 through 8.

• 25 students in Grades 9 through 12.

Now Amendment 8, put on the ballot by our Legislature, would allow public schools to continue to use schoolwide averages, instead of a classroom-by-classroom cap.

This certainly would give the schools more breathing room. For any one classroom, Amendment 8 would allow a maximum of:

• 21 students in pre-K through Grade 3.

• 27 students in Grades 4 through 8.

• 30 students in Grades 9 through 12.

Much of our state's Legislature, business lobby and education management (school boards, school administrators) support Amendment 8 as an attempt to "right-size" the class-size limits.

On the other hand, Florida's governmental and political classes have disliked the class-size limits from the beginning. Jeb Bush, governor at the time, famously warned that the cost of class-size limits would "blot out the sun."

In the years since, Florida has spent about $16 billion to reduce class sizes (out of roughly $477 billion in total revenue for those years). Decide for yourself whether this "blots out the sun."

A private business group, Florida TaxWatch, estimates that keeping the tougher limits will cost us an average of $4 billion a year over the next decade. (For what it's worth, TaxWatch also quotes disputed studies which argue that smaller class sizes don't do much good anyway.)

There's another, more immediate cost. According to the Legislature, an astonishing percentage of Florida's classrooms — the highest is 37 percent in Grades 9 through 12 — will be in violation of the existing limits this fall.

These school districts could lose as much as $131 million for their noncompliance, which is a frightening whack, if not catastrophic.

On the other hand, this penalty has been set up by the Legislature itself, which, at the same time, has not appropriated the full amount necessary to meet the limits — another attempt to steamroll the voters into passing Amendment 8 because we "have to."

If the voters decide Amendment 8 is reasonable, well, they get the last say. But given that the government has opposed class-size limits from the beginning, that it has waited until now to propose Amendment 8, that it has set up artificial penalties and a budget crisis, and that this is part of a greater philosophical animosity to citizen petitions, I would not mind in the slightest if the voters said, "No, we really meant it."

Amendment 8 asks Florida voters to reconsider class sizes 08/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 7:51pm]
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