The Florida state board of education is either a courageous fiscal watchdog or a spineless political lapdog. It all depends on who’s talking.
Since its unanimous Aug. 19 vote to advocate dismantling most of the state’s ambitious class-size-reduction program, the seven-member panel has been lionized by those who fear the program will break the bank, and lambasted by those who claim the panelists are rubber stamps for Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed them and opposes the program.
Despite the heat it has generated, the board’s vote lacks teeth. Florida voters approved class-size reduction last fall as an amendment to the state constitution. That can be changed only by a special election, or by another voter referendum, placed on the ballot by a petition drive or by three-fifths of the lawmakers in each house of the legislature.
The law requires Florida’s schools to cap class sizes at 18 in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school by 2010. At this stage, districts must pare their average class sizes by two, but the requirements descend to the classroom level as the program advances. The state board wants to jettison all but the K-3 requirements.
While Gov. Bush, a Republican, supports repealing the law and has many allies in a statehouse controlled by his own party, no one has yet stepped forward to lead such a drive. But backers of the class-size-reduction program see the state board’s vote as an unwelcome bid to influence public opinion.
“This just continues their history of being more political gadflies than trying to direct public education,” said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat from Miami, who co- sponsored the petition drive as a state senator.
Sen. Ron Klein, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, called the board’s vote “an insult to the public.”
“We have a responsibility to follow through on what the public asked us to do, and that is reduce the size of classes in Florida.”
But opponents worry that following through will be too costly. James M. Warford, Florida’s chancellor of K-12 education, noted that $1 billion of the $1.1 billion increase in the proposed 2004-05 budget would be devoted to reducing class size.
State board member William L. Proctor proposed the vote because he was worried about money as well as what he viewed as insufficient research to prove smaller classes’ effectiveness above 3rd grade.
“We have to raise awareness about it,” he said later. “It’s our responsibility.”