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Wanted: a real solution

Five days before the Florida Legislature's special session on the school overcrowding crisis, this is your state government in action: The Department of Education has no clue how many thousands of portable classrooms are jammed onto school campuses. The House has unveiled a Rube Goldberg plan for building schools that would take years to unravel. The Senate probably would let local school districts raise the sales tax without a referendum but won't push the idea because the House opposes it. The governor has wheeled a portable into the Capitol courtyard and may invite an elementary school class to meet there next week.

And we wonder why voters have lost confidence in government.

There are nearly 6,000 more portable classrooms than the state's numbers reflect, the Times' Diane Rado and T. Christian Miller reported Sunday. That means there are up to 22,498 portables; one in every five public school students may not be in a regular classroom. The governor, education officials and legislators have spent months debating this issue without an accurate count. No amount of whining about formulas and inaccurate reports from school districts excuses such sloppiness. All it took was 67 telephone calls and an eagerness to learn the truth.

Most legislators do not want to hear the truth. They are desperately looking for the easy way out of a problem that lawmakers from both political parties ignored for years. Now the true extent of the crisis has been exposed, and it is worse than anyone in Tallahassee envisioned. At best, the $3.3-billion plan recommended by the Governor's Commission on Education and endorsed by Gov. Lawton Chiles would have eliminated perhaps two of every three portables and ensured that there would be enough schools to handle growth in enrollment over the next five years. Now it is clear that proposal, which is too rich for Republicans controlling the Legislature, will not achieve even those modest goals.

No one _ not Chiles, not the Senate and certainly not the House _ has put enough cash on the table to deal with school overcrowding effectively. That would take the guts to raise state revenues to build more schools, an attribute that is in short supply in the capital. So House Speaker Dan Webster has anted up $100-million a year in recurring money, and Chiles has bid $150-million. Senate President Toni Jennings bids $220-million, but that probably would create budget problems in future years. Then they boost their bottom lines by resorting to borrowing schemes, passing the buck to local school boards and wrapping the whole mess in a ball of regulatory string.

Even worse is the deceitful ploy by the governor and the House to bring the lottery into the debate, as if that will increase public confidence. Their plans call for the general tax dollars to replace lottery dollars, which would be used to back bonds. The lottery was supposed to generate money to enhance education, and voters are justifiably angry that it has been used to replace tax dollars siphoned away for other needs. This is a variation of that shell game. Webster's declaration that building more schools to reduce overcrowding is an educational enhancement is absurd. Computers are an enhancement. New schools are a necessity.

Yet the governor and the Senate are allowing Webster and his fellow Republican extremists in the House to dictate the debate. House Republicans will not raise taxes, so taxes are off the table. House Republicans will not let school boards raise the sales tax to build schools without a referendum, so it appears a referendum still will be required. Webster is betting that Chiles does not care as much about building schools as he does about children's health programs and fighting tobacco companies. He is betting Chiles will accept whatever crumbs the House is willing to toss toward public education.

"This is not his issue," Webster told the Times editorial board recently. "It's a (political) party-bearing issue, and he has got to bear it."

It is up to Chiles to summon the energy and the determination to prove Webster wrong. The governor has 14 months left in a long and distinguished political career. He can go out a winner by insisting on a real solution to school overcrowding. Dragging a portable classroom to the Capitol is a nice touch, but it will take more than that to prod the Legislature to do right by Florida's schoolchildren.