Fla. Legislators Add School Funds, Defer on Crowded Classes
Florida's first Republican-led legislature in more than a century finished its work this month after addressing much of what ails education, but largely bypassing the state's most pressing school problem--crowded classrooms.
Although education was the focus of the 60-day legislative session that ended May 2--lawmakers boosted spending for public schools by $650 million and raised performance standards for students and teachers--it did not produce a solution to the classroom crunch.
State leaders have ruled out the possibility of convening a special session to address the facilities problem before fall.
Instead, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Daniel Webster, both Republicans, have agreed to work together over the summer toward a solution to school crowding on the Governor's Commission on Education. The independent panel of business executives, educators, and politicians was appointed last September to address school issues.
State leaders have made clear that school construction remains a top priority.
"In some schools, there's more crowd control than teaching going on," Gov. Chiles said in a joint statement he and the Republican leaders issued April 29. The commission, he said, will "explore every option for eliminating crowded classrooms."
"We want to break out of the bubble and explore innovative ways to address the challenge of school overcrowding," added Speaker Webster. "We look forward to having a substantive plan that has the support of the governor, the House, and the Senate."
Florida's public school system, which is expected to swell to nearly 2.3 million students next school year, has grown by an average of 58,500 students for each of the past nine years. Ten percent of the state's students spends at least some of their school day in a portable classroom. The state's elementary schools are the largest in enrollment the nation, and its high schools are the second largest, according to the state education department.
Class sizes have soared in the highest growth portions of the state especially high school classes, which can have up to 40 students.
A local 2-mill property tax--$2 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value--that districts can levy for school construction has generated nearly $700 million over the past decade. But the state contribution to such projects peaked in 1992 and has been declining ever since.
If the governor's commission can work out a plan this summer, lawmakers will convene in a special session in the fall to consider it.
The legislature did manage by session's end to approve a $42.4 billion state spending plan that provides nearly $6.5 billion for K-12 public schools, a 3.7 percent increase from last year. The governor is expected to sign the measure.
Lawmakers also raised the grade point average required for high school graduation to 2.0, a C average. And they approved merit pay for teachers and shortened the time it takes to fire a teacher from up to two years to only a few months. ("Graduation-Standards Bill Signed Into Law in Florida," April 9, 1997.)
School crowding did not go totally unaddressed this session: An 11th-hour school facilities bill designating $50 million for construction was on Gov. Chiles' desk last week.
But with the average cost of building a new school ranging from $10 million for an elementary school to $25 million for a high school, according to the state department of education, that amount won't go far toward the estimated $3.3 billion needed for state school construction over the next five years.
"It's such a pittance compared to what's needed," said Cathy Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, the state's largest teachers' union.
Double sessions and portable classrooms will be a reality for Florida students for a while, she said.
The debate over construction focused more on whether and how to raise new tax dollars than on schools' needs.
"There was a lot of discussion about crowding this session, but no one approach gained traction," said Alan Stonecipher, the staff director for the Governor's Commission on Education. "The lack of consensus made it obvious that more time was needed to define the problem more specifically and generate creative ideas about financing."
Before the state commits more dollars to facilities, observers say, the specific needs of each district--enrollment, capacity, projected growth, and finances--need to be made clear to the state's taxpayers.
"Legislators need to show that they know exactly what they're getting into--outlining the problem and coming up with some clear, practical solutions to tackle it," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at University of South Florida in Tampa. "A large percentage of Floridians don't have kids in the public schools, and there's a certain degree of uncertainty about the level of demand" for new schools.
"I think the commission shows a good-faith effort to tackle this problem," she said.