The Florida Legislature's charade is winding down. Our elected representatives have gone through the motions this week of addressing the school overcrowding crisis. Do not be fooled by the likely result of this special session. The number of portable classrooms will not be drastically reduced. Class sizes will not be cut. And the problem will not be solved.
Perhaps Floridians should be grateful for the token effort. At least some new schools will be built. At least some portables will be retired; some might even be connected by new walkways. But before legislators leave Tallahassee, these 20 questions deserve an answer:
1. Why couldn't legislators hear the students, teachers and parents who eloquently described the negative effects of portables and overcrowding on the quality of public education?
2. Why couldn't legislators see the thousands of portables jammed onto school campuses and recognize the problem?
3. Why didn't Gov. Lawton Chiles fight for a responsible solution to school overcrowding as resolutely as he fought tobacco companies for compensation for health-care costs?
4. Why should the governor accept anything less than $3.3-billion, the conservative estimate by the Governor's Commission on Education of the five-year unmet need for new schools?
5. When did it become unthinkable even to debate paying for more schools by raising a modest statewide tax, such as extending the gross receipts tax on utilities to other services?
6. If Chiles is not going to insist that the Legislature follow the education commission's recommendations, such as extending the gross receipts tax and allowing school boards to raise the sales tax without a referendum, why did he even appoint the commission?
7. Who in their right mind believes voters will support another shell game involving the lottery, which was supposed to generate money to enhance education, not build schools?
8. Why didn't more legislators listen to Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, who correctly noted that using money from the lottery to pay off school construction bonds for 20 years will "completely destroy it and give up on the hope and dream that was the lottery"?
9. Where is the outrage that should have been generated by a Times computer analysis that found 6,000 more portables than the state counted, that students with disabilities and special needs are often the first to be crammed into portables, and that elementary schools with high numbers of poor or minority students often get the oldest, shabbiest portables?
10. Shouldn't the time Chiles, Senate Democratic Leader Buddy Dyer and other Democrats spent making political fund-raising calls this week have been used to call on Republicans to raise more money for schools?
11. Is it more than a coincidence that days after House Speaker Dan Webster visited a dilapidated middle school in his Orlando-area district, $16.1-million shows up in the House bill for a "model functional, frugal" middle school?
12. If the early '70s were the golden age of the Florida Legislature, are the mid-'90s the dark ages?
13. Why do legislators faced with an enormous problem such as school overcrowding consider an illegal, ridiculous proposal such as giving away tax dollars to pay for private tuition at religious schools?
14. Whose brainstorm was it to divert attention from school overcrowding by throwing $250 at every teacher to cover out-of-pocket expenses, a separate problem that would be better solved by giving schools adequate money for supplies?
15. Why was outgoing university Chancellor Charles Reed able to accurately predict this week's message from the Legislature before the special session began: "We're cheap, and we're proud of it"?
16. When are Floridians going to demand decent schools?
17. What happens now in Orange County, where voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax this week that would have covered 90 percent of its school construction needs and where the Legislature's package will cover a tiny portion of those costs?
18. What happens now in Broward County, where the Legislature's proposals will not begin to pay for all of the needed schools and where a grand jury report this week detailed significant mismanagement of the school district's last building binge?
19. Does this mark the beginning of the end of a statewide system of public education, to be followed by the creation of an unequal system of many more local districts with more control over whether schools are exceptional or substandard?
20. This morning, what do we tell the first-grader learning to read in a noisy portable, the third-grader who gets soaked trudging from the portable to the cafeteria, or the fifth-grader struggling with math in an overcrowded classroom?