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Published in Print: May 12, 2004, as New Dollars to Shrink Fla. Class Sizes OK’d

New Dollars to Shrink Fla. Class Sizes OK’d

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Florida lawmakers are earning high marks in some circles for passing a new education budget that helps pay for smaller classes across the state. But they failed to tighten state oversight of controversial school choice programs, and they didn’t develop a universal preschool plan to Gov. Jeb Bush’s liking.

Legislators adjourned in Tallahassee on April 29 after passing a $543 million increase for K-12 schools for the new fiscal year. Spending will rise about 6.5 percent over the current year’s $8.2 billion allotment for elementary and secondary education.

Together with additional funding for universities and a record-high increase for community colleges in Florida’s K-20 education system, the new spending for all levels of education reaches nearly $1 billion.

"Any time you’ve got a billion dollars for public schools—knock on wood—it’s a good year," Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne said in an interview last week.

The extra money, though, will go quickly.

About half the budget increase for K-12 schools will be spent on reducing class sizes, as required under a voter-approved state constitutional amendment.

Mr. Horne said that some observers may see the budget increase as modest, especially with rising prices for school employees’ health benefits, but that the gain is still impressive. Many districts should be able to offer small teacher-pay raises.

"I wouldn’t trade where Florida is with where states like Tennessee, North Carolina, and California are," he added.

"Given the economic times, I thought the budget was fairly good, and the legislation was for the most part education-friendly," said Joy Frank, the general counsel for the Tallahassee- based Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Voice of Dissension

Not everyone was thrilled by the budget.

Damien Filer, the spokesman for the Tallahassee-based Florida Coalition to Reduce Class Size, said the legislature was allowing class-size-reduction money to take away from general education spending.

He said that voters’ support for smaller classes is one reason Mr. Horne’s and Gov. Bush’s calls for a new public vote to repeal or scale back the expensive class-size limits approved on the November 2002 ballot never gained traction in this year’s legislature.

Lawmakers "realized the polling just wasn’t there to put the class-size amendment on the presidential ballot this year," Mr. Filer said, referring to the upcoming Nov. 2 general elections.

School districts must cut class sizes by an average of four students by fall as they move toward specific class sizes for each K-12 grade level as set by law. ("Class-Size Reduction Is Slow Going in Fla.," Feb. 18, 2004.)

Commissioner Horne said the class-size limits would cost more in the future and could cause a teacher shortage. A scaled-back plan would save money and address implementation problems in some school districts, he argued. "I think you’re going to hear the voices of dissension grow," Mr. Horne added.

In other budget matters, some South Florida school districts saw some of their state aid slip away. Lawmakers from other parts of the state won a share of extra funding that the state had earmarked for districts in and around Miami and Fort Lauderdale to cover higher living costs.

Thanks to the shift, the 129,000-student Duval County district, based in Jacksonville, will see an extra $8.8 million from the state in the 2005 fiscal year. That’s an increase of more than 1 percent in the district’s $800 million budget.

"Obviously, we consider this one of our better sessions financially for the district," said George Latimer, an associate superintendent in Duval County.

No New Oversight

The legislature did not OK new rules for greater state oversight of school choice programs, as Mr. Horne, who was appointed by Gov. Bush, had urged.

Some private school groups and lawmakers had pushed for testing and other accountability steps for private schools that receive money under the state’s school choice programs following financial probes into two schools involved in the programs. ("Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules," Sept. 17, 2003.)

An estimated 29,000 students now use Florida’s three major school choice programs, some of which allow students to attend private schools using state-financed tuition vouchers.

Mr. Horne said the state is doing a much better job gathering information on schools involved in the programs, but he wants state law to back up his agency when it tries to stop fraud. "Ultimately, I will need the authority to be able to enforce" those rules, he said.

The legislature did pass a limited preschool plan that Gov. Bush hinted he might veto. He said publicly that the plan may not be what voters had envisioned when they approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 that requires Florida to offer universal preschool for 4-year-olds by 2005.

Legislators voted last month to pay for pilot programs in which several districts would provide three-hour preschool classes during the next school year, or full-time summer preschools.

Mr. Horne said he did not know if Gov. Bush would veto any part of the preschool legislation, but that the state and districts will need more money and classrooms to offer preschool on a larger scale.

In other action, lawmakers approved the governor’s plan to improve middle schools, which includes funding for more than 200 new reading coaches. Florida already provides more than 200 reading coaches in elementary schools across the state.

Vol. 23, Issue 36, Pages 18,22

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