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Cheating schoolchildren

In Pinellas County public schools, 922 more people are about to lose their jobs. Children as young as 5 years of age will be stuffed into classrooms with 25 other students. Elementary schools no longer will have reading specialists, middle schools and high schools will lose a class period, and teachers who don't lose their jobs may well lose their spirit.

It's part of the education plan that Pinellas school Superintendent Howard Hinesley has been forced to put together for the coming year, and worse than the prospect of his recommended $32-million in cutbacks is that they are only the beginning. Worse than the recognition that students will suffer again next year is that they may suffer throughout an educational career.

Are these the kind of schools that Florida wants?

In Tallahassee, state lawmakers are blithely blaming the economic recession. But that's dishonest. The recession has indeed reduced the amount of tax money the state is receiving, but the impoverishment of public education runs much deeper. It begins with lawmakers who siphoned off lottery money for other needs, who drained financial reserves leaving the state prone to economic fluctuations, and who failed in recent years to pay for the explosive enrollment growth in schools. The current economy is a factor, certainly, but legislative indifference is the cause.

For the schools across Florida that have been forced to lay off teachers and cut back classroom budgets in the past 18 months, Hinesley's 1992-93 proposal reveals the alarming depth of this crisis. Hinesley is to be commended for the care he took in his recommendations and the extent to which he shielded the classrooms from harm. But the frightening bottom line is that he may have to do more.

Even if the state Legislature next month were to adopt the $1.3-billion tax increase being proposed in Gov. Lawton Chiles' "investment budget," Pinellas still would have to make most of the cuts Hinesley has recommended. And no one believes the Legislature will. In fact, many key lawmakers, including House Speaker T.

K. Wetherell and Senate Appropriations chairman Bud Gardner, are saying the Legislature will pass no tax increase at all. The standard line is the recession, and here's a version offered by Sen. John MacKay, R-Bradenton: "No economist will tell you taxes doesn't do anything but aggravate an economic recession. There is no way I'll vote to put more people out of work."

Such proclamations apparently don't extend to educators, though, since the same lawmakers who support education cutbacks will end up putting thousands of teachers out of work. The recession argument is simply not compelling because it ignores the economic stimulus of public investment and it fails to deal with the current tax inequities. Florida can help those who are hurting in the recession by reforming the tax structure and making people and businesses of greater wealth pay more of the burden.

That kind of tax reform takes courage, though, and few people in the Capitol are showing any. These are tough times, but do Wetherell and Senate President Gwen Margolis want to be remembered as the leaders who crumbled under pressure? Do any of the state's 160 elected lawmakers want to be remembered as the ones who ushered the decline in Florida public education?

Though they may not understand it in Tallahassee, the Hinesley budget is dead serious. Education is about to be harmed in substantial ways, and the people we elect are the ones who are responsible.