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The 65 percent gimmick

Published Feb. 22, 2006

Asking voters to change their minds is a perilous endeavor for any elected official, and Florida lawmakers are setting themselves up for failure if they try to trick people into repealing a mandate for smaller school class sizes.

That's the current plan in Tallahassee, and it smacks of precisely the kind of gamesmanship and arrogance that tends to elicit voter backlash. By combining the class size issue with a mandate to direct 65 percent of education money to classrooms, the Legislature is only pretending to meet voters halfway. Instead, it is insulting them with a constitutional gimmick.

The so-called "65 percent solution" comes from a national movement with partisan objectives. Tim Mooney, an Arizona-based political consultant who serves as spokesman for First Class Education, even circulated a memorandum touting the "political benefits" for Republicans. They include the "splitting of the education union" and "the use of unlimited non-personal money for political positioning advantages."

Mooney's group claims Florida can redirect $1-billion toward the classroom, but the formula he uses counts guidance counselors, reading specialists and special education assistants as though they are front-office bureaucrats. The dividing line is so irrational that key lawmakers are promising to draw their own, which points to the underlying deception in this game. Lawmakers don't need a constitutional directive to reallocate money in schools. They can do so themselves.

Pairing "65 percent" with class size is simply a political calculation. A recent Florida Education Association poll suggests support for class size reduction has now climbed to 71 percent, up from the 52 percent approval in 2002. But national polls on the 65 Percent Solution suggest a similar approval rate. Lawmakers think they can play one off the other to come up with victory.

The better way to persuade voters to remove the rigid caps that apply in every grade under the class size amendment is to actually meet them halfway. Parents and teachers already can see how much more personal attention is given in a kindergarten class with 18 students as opposed to one with 28. They also know, as do the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush, that smaller class sizes are most important in the primary grades.

So why not take the decoy off the table and offer a legitimate compromise? Ask voters to relax the classroom caps for middle and high schools in return for the state fulfilling the promise of small classes for the youngest students - kindergarten through third grade.

The financial doomsday scenario the governor outlined for voters in 2002 has been proven to be an exaggeration, and voters are smart enough to know that. In the first four years of reducing class sizes, the per-student spending has increased at roughly the same rate as in previous years. Rather than raise taxes, as Bush warned would be necessary, the state instead has cut them to the tune of $14.8-billion.

Lawmakers are rolling the dice if they think they can trick or scare voters into cheating kindergarten students. The best approach is the direct one. If they don't think they can convince voters with an honest argument and a sincere compromise, then they shouldn't put class size on the ballot.