Florida's public schools need more money, but a constitutional amendment that would raise the sales tax by a penny and tie it to a change in the class-size amendment is not the right route to more revenue. While the political calculations are understandable, asking voters to approve a regressive tax to fund public education would be an easy way out for legislators avoiding the hard choices they were elected to make.
There are many better ways of raising money for education: making it easier to collect the sales tax on Internet sales, taxing some services, closing corporate loopholes and reducing sales tax exemptions, among them. A sales tax increase disproportionately affects the poor and does not broaden the tax base. Asking voters to increase the sales tax by a penny without addressing the many exemptions would be shortsighted and increase Florida's reliance on a revenue base that is too narrow and volatile.
Still, Republican Sens. Stephen Wise of Jacksonville and Don Gaetz of Niceville have at least acknowledged the need to spend more on education and find more revenue. They recognize that the Legislature needs to ensure Florida's schools have enough money to educate students for success in an ever-more competitive world. They also acknowledge that the class-size amendment is about to become too expensive and inflexible.
Six years ago, a frustrated electorate amended the Florida Constitution to limit the number of students in a class and force the state to bear the costs. So far, districts have been able to meet the standards with schoolwide averages. Districts are in compliance as long as those average numbers don't exceed 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 in high school. But the Constitution requires that each individual classroom meet those targets by the 2010-11 school year. Because that will be too expensive and inflexible, voters should be given the opportunity to adjust the class-size amendment to stick with schoolwide averages.
The Department of Education estimates that meeting the coming class-by-class limits would cost more than an additional $1 billion in the first year alone. While more money should be spent on education, this is not best use of scarce dollars. Smaller classes, particularly past the early grades, are no guarantee of educational excellence. But the class-size issue is one that should be decided on its own merits and not be tied to a sales tax increase.
While the proposed amendment would let the Legislature off the hook, it is far from certain that it would pass with the required 60 percent approval. Convincing voters to both loosen class-size requirements and raise taxes would be a difficult sell. And exactly how would lawmakers assure voters the new money would go to improving education after those same promises about lottery money failed to be fulfilled?
Slightly more than half of the state budget goes to education spending. Now that some Senate Republicans have broached the topic of new revenue sources, it's time for legislators themselves to turn to more progressive ways to raise the money for education and other needs.