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Gov. Bush Dealt Defeat on Vouchers, Class-Size-Reduction Proposal

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In a major setback for Gov. Jeb Bush, the Florida legislature has rejected several of his education initiatives, including proposals to rewrite the state’s class-size-reduction law and to expand the state’s school voucher offerings.

The move by the GOP-led legislature in the final days of the 2005 session last week was the first significant defeat on education by lawmakers for the Republican governor in his more than six years in office.

Gov. Bush had hoped to reopen the debate over class sizes, after voters narrowly approved a costly initiative in 2002 that will gradually lower class sizes and require, by 2010, caps of 18 students for all K-3 classes, 22 for the remaining elementary years through middle school, and 25 for high school. The governor this year proposed a modified plan, to be placed on a statewide ballot, that would have calculated the average class sizes at the district instead of the classroom level—thus giving district more flexibility in meeting the new requirements.

Gov. Bush maintains that the class-size program is simply too expensive. He opposed the measure during his 2002 re-election campaign, saying it could cost $27 billion over eight years to implement.

In an attempt to get support from the state teachers’ unions, which have been among the top supporters of smaller class sizes, Mr. Bush offered to set the starting salary for new teachers at $35,000, and give $2,000 bonuses to other teachers. While the American Federation of Teachers estimated the average salary for beginning teachers in Florida was $31,467 for the 2003-04 school year, the latest figures available, many new teachers in Miami and other urban areas already earn nearly $35,000, according to the Florida Education Association.

“The whole idea of going back on a voter initiative is hard for a lot of political leaders to swallow,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the FEA, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the AFT. “It wasn’t as though voters didn’t know that this would be an expensive proposition.”

Gov. Bush’s office did not return calls for comment this week.

The class-size proposal needed a three-fifths majority in the 40-member Senate to get on the November 2006 ballot. The measure failed, 21-19, on May 5.

On the voucher front, the legislature shot down the governor’s proposal to provide school tuition aid for students who have failed the state’s reading assessments for three years in a row. That measure could have given vouchers to more than 170,000 Florida students, in addition to state-funded programs that already help pay tuition at secular and religious private schools.

Some Republicans expressed concern that the proposed voucher program could be nullified later this year by the Florida Supreme Court. Lower courts in the state have already declared that another program, the Opportunity Scholarships, violates the Florida Constitution because those scholarships provide public aid to help some students from low-performing schools attend religious schools. The state also offers vouchers for special education students and allows tax credits to groups that donate money to scholarship funds, which are used by about 25,000 students total, to attend secular and religious private schools.

The state supreme court is scheduled to hear arguments early next month on the Opportunity Scholarships.

The legislature also failed to pass a proposal, which was backed by the governor, that would have tightened oversight of employees at schools that receive state voucher money. The plan responded to an incident last year in which seven employees at a Christian school were charged with defrauding the state tens of thousands of dollars.

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