Within 10 years, the number of students graduating from Florida high schools is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent. Many will want to go on to college.
As things stand, Florida's universities and community colleges can't afford to make room for them.
These and other financial worries have led university regents and state college board members into a rare and unanimous campaign against a statewide ballot measure that is almost certain to pass _ a constitutional amendment that would limit state revenue to the same rate of growth as Florida residents' personal income.
It's called Amendment 2. It was written by the Legislature last spring as a less-stringent alternative to tax-cap measures proposed by several private groups. The state Supreme Court removed those measures from November's ballot for legal reasons, leaving Amendment 2 as the only proposal for those who wish to put a constitutional brake on government spending.
Both candidates for governor, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, support Amendment 2 _ an indication, perhaps, of the sentiment against taxes.
"No one thinks it will not pass," said University of South Florida President Betty Castor, a former Democratic legislator and state education commissioner.
But the folks who run Florida's colleges and universities are alarmed at the prospect. They say they are already squeezed by competing demands for more prisons, more social services and booming enrollment in the public schools. Now, just when colleges are about to boom, too, is not the time to artificially limit government spending, they say.
"Here we have 10,000 more high school graduates a year every year," said Charles Reed, chancellor of the state university system. "And we've sold all these prepaid tuition contracts. It's going to cause a hell of a train wreck. I just don't see how it's going to work."
Tax cap advocates say government leaders will just have to readjust their priorities.
But Reed points to the past 10 years, when crime control and social spending far outpaced education. He doesn't see any change soon.
Next year, state budget planners estimate that current taxes will bring in an additional $1-billion. But current needs, such as health and rehabilitative services and the cost of new prisons, have already claimed most of that. What's left for the university system? About $15-million, or an increase of about 1.4 percent. The community colleges would get about $14-million.
That's scarcely enough to pay for a salary increase _ Florida professors already are among the most poorly paid in the country _ not to mention any growth in enrollment.
And current political rhetoric, as seen most visibly in Bush's gubernatorial campaign, still emphasizes spending on prisons instead of schools.
The Department of Corrections plans to build 27,000 new prison beds in the next five years to make criminals serve at least 75 percent of their sentences. They will cost $543-million to build and $523-million a year to operate. The new beds alone _ not counting Florida's current prisons _ would constitute the fourth-largest prison system in the country.
"Do we want to be known as having the most prison beds in America and the least-educated population? That's where we're headed," Reed said. Florida ranks 45th in the country in the number of its young adults who earn college degrees.
For the first time in modern history, Florida also spends more on prisons than it does on universities, Reed says.
"We can go a little further than that," said Clark Maxwell, Reed's counterpart with the State Board of Community Colleges. Each prisoner costs the state seven times what it costs to educate one community college student, he says.
"We know we're talking from a biased viewpoint and that others have needs," Maxwell said. "But there's enough competition already without adding to it."
In recent weeks, both the Board of Regents and the State Board of Community Colleges have approved unanimous resolutions opposing Amendment 2.
Sandra Mortham, a Republican state House leader from Pinellas County and a candidate for secretary of state, was one of the authors of Amendment 2. She says there ought to be plenty of money in Florida's $38-billion budget to support both prisons and education. Those are Floridian's top two priorities, she says, although she acknowledges that past Legislatures have not always acted that way.
Mortham supports a state revenue limit because she says people are tired of not being able to control taxes and government spending. "People can only afford so much. The general population believes they do pay enough for the services they receive."
Mortham says she is not familiar with the statistics often used by education leaders in arguing that Florida is actually a low-tax state. The Center for the Study of the States, for example, says Florida ranked 42nd in the nation in 1992 in state taxes and 43rd in state and local taxes. Florida also ranks 49th in state government spending per capita.
"People are looking at the bottom line. They don't look at all those statistics," Mortham said. "They just know they already pay too much.
David Biddulph, who leads a political committee that wants to require voter approval of all new taxes (also a Jeb Bush proposal), argues that tax limits would actually help priorities like education. Politicians would have to make sure their spending reflects the people's wishes if they ever hoped to get approval for more taxes, Biddulph says.
Alec Courtelis, a former university regent and one of Jeb Bush's most prominent backers, also believes in tax and spending limits. When he was regents' chairman, Courtelis was known for his advocacy on behalf of the university system, including salary raises for employees.
But Courtelis says taxpayers have had enough. He says universities could still afford to cut and consolidate some programs. And he suggests major tuition increases to balance the budget, since he believes public tuition is too low.
"People don't appreciate things if they get them too cheap," Courtelis said, citing his own experience as a young immigrant putting himself through the University of Miami.
Reed, the university chancellor, has worked successfully under both Democratic and Republican governors, although his political pedigree is Democratic. Courtelis knows that Reed's argument runs counter to the views espoused by his candidate Bush. But that doesn't bother Courtelis.
"Charlie Reed is one of the most highly regarded university chancellors in the country," he said. "He has the interests of the university system at heart _ there's no doubt in my mind."
Reed also says he isn't worried about politics. "I feel like the Lone Ranger," he said last week. "I also feel like I have the responsibility as an advocate for the public university system to speak out and say what the consequences are. . . .
"I know that the university system in Florida is not overfunded, and we don't provide too many opportunities for our kids to get baccalaureate degrees. I don't need to worry about the politics. I'll worry about the facts and let the politics take care of themselves."
Doing more with less
Ten-year rise in university enrollment: 40 percent.
Ten-year rise in state spending+ for universities: 15 percent.
Ten-year rise in community college enrollment: 55 percent
Ten-year rise in spending for community colleges: 5 percent
Ten-year rise in all state education spending: 21 percent
Rise in spending for social services: 146 percent
Rise in spending for prisons and corrections: 209 percent.
+ All spending figures are in constant 1984 dollars.
Source: Florida Board of Regents, Florida Board of Community Colleges