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Facing reality

The Florida Legislature opened its week-long special session Monday without displaying the sense of urgency expected when addressing a crisis such as school overcrowding. Committees went through the motions of debating education amendments with all of the enthusiasm of high schoolers stuck in a government class. Perhaps the legislators were drained by the time and energy they devoted to praising the world champion Florida Marlins and posing with the team mascot, Billy the Marlin.

Facing reality is never easy, particularly for Florida's legislators.

The reality is that school overcrowding is far more serious than it appears to be from inside the windowless House and Senate chambers. First, a Times survey of all 67 counties turned up nearly 6,000 more portable classrooms than the state counts. Now there is disturbing evidence that students with disabilities, behavioral problems and special needs are often the first to be jammed into portables. The very students who too often are viewed as second-class are hidden away in second-class classrooms.

While there is not enough data to reach definitive conclusions, the trends reported by the Times' Diane Rado and T. Christian Miller are troubling and merit investigation by Gov. Lawton Chiles, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan and state legislators. In Pinellas, for example, 44 percent of all portables are used for special-needs children. In some smaller districts with relatively few portables, nearly all of them are used for exceptional education, pre-kindergarten for poor children and other special programs.

Now it is clearer why some legislators argue they have heard little from constituents upset about overcrowding. Many of the students most affected come from the families who rarely participate in politics and whose voices are often ignored when they do speak up. Are some Florida school districts systematically discriminating against students with special needs by moving them into ill-equipped portables before other students? The state needs to answer the question instead of ignoring it.

Unfortunately, reality checks are not the Legislature's forte. House Speaker Dan Webster is particularly oblivious. He visited an overcrowded, crumbling middle school in his own Orlando-area district Friday. While he agreed the school should be replaced, he again suggested the primary problem is that local school districts have wasted money by building lavish facilities. Wrong. The primary problem is that Webster and his colleagues in the Legislature have failed to raise enough revenues to build enough schools.

Sunday night, Webster was seen by reporters wandering around downtown Tallahassee in the dark, looking for a secret meeting of House leaders that violated the spirit of government-in-the-sunshine and exposed his boasts of openness as so much hot air. The Republican speaker never found the meeting. The scene is a metaphor for Webster's approach to school overcrowding and this special session: stumbling in the dark, promoting as a solution a plan that provides little money and micromanages local districts, and failing to find reality.

It is up to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and Republican Senate President Toni Jennings to show Webster the way to a realistic plan to address school overcrowding. Anything less than a five-year, $3.3-billion package that includes a substantial investment by both the state and local school districts is unacceptable.

There are four days left in the special session. If the Florida Marlins can win the World Series in an extra-inning Game Seven, the Florida Legislature can craft responsible legislation to ease school overcrowding by Friday.