Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's support for easing the state's class size requirements for public schools is a welcome show of independence from the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor. She also happens to be on the right side of the issue in supporting Amendment 8, the constitutional amendment placed on the November ballot by the Republican-led Legislature.
Many elected Democratic officials have tried to characterize Amendment 8 as a full-scale assault on the 2002 constitutional amendment voters approved that promised to cap class sizes by this fall at 18 for prekindergarten through third grade; 22 for fourth through eighth grades and 25 for ninth through 12th grades. The amendment has been successful in forcing lawmakers to spend money to shrink average class sizes, first by capping districtwide averages and now schoolwide averages. But its final phase, due to be implemented this fall, will cost far more as it would require schools where all classrooms are at the maximum to hire an additional teacher whenever one additional child shows up.
Amendment 8 is a reasonable way of avoiding an unnecessary, unaffordable expense. If approved by 60 percent of voters in November, it would erode none of the gains thus far. It would simply freeze the class size requirement at the schoolwide average and add an additional requirement to ensure no classroom could grow too large. No teacher could be assigned more than 21 students per class for prekindergarten through third grade; 27 for fourth through eighth grade and 30 for high school. Such flexibility provides needed leeway for individual schools to prioritize resources or cope with an influx of unexpected students.
From the beginning, the 2002 class size amendment has been a largely partisan affair. Then-state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, responding to growing anger at large class sizes at some public schools, orchestrated the citizen petition drive that put the class size amendment on the ballot. The campaign even overcame opposition from then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who easily rode to re-election on the same ballot. But it also hurt the campaign of Bush's opponent and Sink's husband, Democrat Bill McBride, who supported Meek's measure but didn't offer a plan to pay for it.
Meek is now a member of Congress and running for U.S. Senate. He is banking on his class size victory to sell voters on his campaign. Many of his Democratic colleagues, including attorney general candidates and state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, have also opposed Amendment 8, contending the Legislature was just trying to undermine voters' wishes. But Sink has avoided such rhetoric, perhaps having learned from her husband's mistake. She understands the financial consequences for the next governor and Legislature if nothing is done to curb the potential class size costs. It's an expense Florida can do without.