Basking in a strong record of success with his education priorities, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared confident earlier this year when he proposed a big expansion of his state’s school voucher program and a rewrite of Florida’s voter-approved law reducing class sizes.
But as the 2005 legislative session closed this month, the GOP-led legislature rebuffed his plans, with lawmakers giving their fellow Republican his first significant defeat on education issues in his more than six years in office.
On class size, Mr. Bush had hoped to reopen a debate he lost when voters narrowly approved a costly initiative in 2002. The measure calls for gradually lowering class sizes and requires, by 2010, caps of 18 pupils for all K-3 classes, 22 students for the remaining elementary years through middle school, and 25 students for high school.
The governor this year proposed a modified plan, to have been placed on a statewide ballot, that would have calculated the average class sizes at the district instead of the classroom level, thus giving districts more flexibility in reaching class-size targets. Gov. Bush estimates the class-size program passed by voters will cost $27 billion over eight years, which he maintains is simply too expensive for the state.
But the legislature did not agree. The class-size proposal needed a three-fifths majority in the 40-member Senate to go on the November 2006 ballot, but it failed 21-19 on May 5.
‘Darn Good Session’
In an attempt to draw the backing of the state’s teachers’ union, which has been among the top supporters of smaller classes, Gov. Bush proposed setting a minimum starting salary for new teachers at $35,000, and adding a $2,000 bonus for other teachers.
While the American Federation of Teachers estimated that the average salary for beginning teachers in Florida was $31,467 for the 2003-04 school year, the latest figure available, many new teachers in Miami and other urban areas in the state already earn nearly $35,000, according to the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the AFT and the National 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.
Damien Filer, a spokesman for the Tallahassee-based advocacy group Communities for Quality Education, says the problem of crowded classrooms is worsening in most parts of the state.
“What we’re seeing now is an acknowledgment by legislators on both sides of the aisle that this is an issue that has to be addressed,” he said. “The longer we put it off, the worse it’s going to get.”
At the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in St. Petersburg, Fla., on May 7, Gov. Bush called the past months “a pretty darn good session” in spite of his losses on the education bills. He expressed disappointment, though, on the defeat of his class-size plan.
The legislature also shot down Mr. Bush’s voucher plan for students who have failed the state’s reading assessments for three consecutive years. That measure could have provided vouchers to more than 170,000 Florida students, in addition to other state-funded programs that help students pay tuition at secular and religious private schools.
Some Republicans expressed concern that the voucher program could be nullified by state courts, which have already declared another voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarships, to be in violation of the Florida Constitution because those scholarships provide public aid to help some students in failing schools attend religious schools. The state also offers vouchers for special education students and allows tax credits to groups that donate money to school scholarship funds. The vouchers and the tax-credit scholarships are used by about 25,000 students.
The state supreme court is scheduled to hear arguments early next month on the Opportunity Scholarships.
Florida will see a slight increase in the number of tax-credit scholarships given to students in the next school year.
As part of the budget, the legislature raised the total cap on the tuition tax credits to $88 million, from $50 million. Advocates of private school choice estimate the change will provide an additional 9,000 scholarships. About 11,000 students now use the tax-credit scholarships.
The legislature failed to pass a proposal, which was backed by the governor, that would have tightened oversight of schools that receive voucher money. Negotiations over the proposed policies broke down over plans for employee background checks.
Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this report.