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A STATE THAT'S PROUD TO BE CHEAP

Charles Reed has served as chancellor of Florida's public university system for 12 years. In March, he will become chancellor for the California State University System, the nation's largest. He wrote this commentary for the Times.

With great anticipation, Florida's schoolchildren, their parents and teachers await the Legislature's official verdict on school crowding in this week's special session. Although no one can predict with certainty the specific outcome, let me venture a guess about the real message we'll hear from our Legislature:

"We're cheap, and we're proud of it."

As I prepare to leave Florida after 25 years in government and education here, I offer one more suggestion to make our government more efficient, productive, effective and cheap. I propose that the Legislature formalize that message by adopting it into law as the body's official motto _ perhaps in Latin, because it sounds more impressive:

Humiles sumus et quoque superbi.

With that understood, all of Florida's greedy "special interests" _ schoolchildren, teachers, parents, community colleges and universities, health and social service providers, children's advocates, environmentalists, seniors, etc. _ can just quit bothering legislators about inconsequential matters, such as Florida's future, its citizens' well-being, its children's quality of life. Imagine how much time will be saved, how many meetings will be prevented, how much futile effort will be avoided, when citizens understand the Legislature's bottom line: "We're cheap, and we're proud of it." No more will Floridians be tempted to seek legislative action when they unfortunately discover a problem or develop a concern. They can just refer to Florida law, and realize quickly that nothing can be done.

Humiles sumus et quoque superbi.

Pride in cheapness as the unofficial state policy is not new in Florida, of course. We've experienced sporadic attempts to invest in education, human capital and other productive infrastructure, most notably Governor Bob Graham's effort in the mid-1980s to move Florida into the top ranks of states in education. We were recognized then as "a state on the move." But Florida always reverts to a "cheap is best" philosophy.

Here's what historians have said in four major histories of Florida, published in 1952, 1965, 1971, and 1996:

+ "Fiscal conservatism has been an overriding objective of Florida's political leaders _ state and local _ from 1976 to the present. "Cut back,' "retrenchment,' and "hold the line' were the state's goals."

+ About the findings of the 1947 Citizens Commission on Education: ". . . The schools of Florida ranked considerably below the national average on most measures commonly used in evaluating a school program, (and) the state was making less effort than most states to support education."

+ "The impression grows as one studies these and other comparisons that Florida is doing far less than she is able for her children, and that they are being injured thereby."

+ In 1971, discussing a failed legislative effort to increase education spending: "School needs . . . must wait again. How do the people of the state and their elected representatives reconcile the need for a quality school system to attract the kinds of people and businesses they seek with the promise to the same people that they will not be taxed too heavily?"

+ "Few state leaders seem ashamed that Florida ranks at the bottom of all 50 states in per capita support for higher education, or that the state's public schools are badly overcrowded and notoriously undersupported."

Heading into the special session, a few legislators, if not the majority, appear chagrined, if not ashamed, by the mismatch between the magnitude of public school overcrowding and weak legislative "solutions." Some lawmakers have told me privately that they wish they could invest more. But the body as a whole becomes timid when the time arrives for bold leadership. The result, increasingly, is government by referendum.

Months of study by the Governor's Commission on Education, including a sizable number of fiscally conservative business leaders, resulted in a clear, minimal goal for additional school funding over the next five years: $3.3-billion. But that work and the conclusion has been met by legislative delay, denial, confusion, argument, attack and, finally, a grudging commitment to invest about a third of that amount in school facilities.

No such tactics were in evidence between 1993 and 1996, however, when, in a mad stampede, the Legislature found more than $600-million to build 27,000 new prison cells, including the 7,000 that will remain empty until 2001. It will take that long for Florida's supply of criminals to catch up with the accommodations built for them years too early by the Legislature.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren await a permanent classroom in Florida. Thanks to the St. Petersburg Times, we now know that the number of portables is thousands higher than the Department of Education thinks. At first, the Legislature used inventive new math to make the problem disappear, at least on paper. Now legislators propose to prohibit evil school districts from building elementary school student stations that cost more than $10,000 each, unconcerned that they've built 7,000 too many prison beds, at $23,000 each. That $161-million miscalculation _ waste, is what I would call it _ is somehow excusable, legislators think, while school districts (and children) must be punished for daring to build school buildings in which communities can take pride.

Why must this be? Much of the legislative desire for economy is sincere in motivation, but destructive in execution. This Legislature is more accomplished at punishing than at supporting. It is more skilled at reacting than at preventing.

In recent years, the debate in Tallahassee seldom has centered around how much we can achieve as a state, in education or any other field. The question is never how smartly we can invest, but instead how cheaply we can do it. How cheaply can we house our students? How little can we spend on their education each year? How fast can we shove students through college, at how little cost? How many infants and toddlers can we warehouse in state-subsidized child care, and how little quality can we provide? How many preventive health services can we avoid? And who can we blame for our failures of leadership?

Florida will never come close to reaching its potential unless it raises its sights and aspires to be more than we are today. The Legislature expects that of school students, teachers, and all publicly funded institutions. But sadly, the Legislature itself is the biggest underachiever in Florida today, because they're proud to be cheap _ no matter how much it costs us in the long run.

SCHOOLS DO MATTER

The State Legislature is scheduled to meet Monday to debate school overcrowding, and some lawmakers are saying people don't care. The Times has found otherwise. For a sample of the letters the newspaper has received from people who want a serious response to school overcrowding and public education issues, please turn to Page 2D.

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