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Quit Wasting Billions on a Reform that Doesn't Help Schools

March 15, 2015 - 7:00pm

In 2002, Florida voters were assured by the liberal media that reducing the size of classes in the public schools would improve educational outcomes.

Most of the media were simply parroting the teacher union bosses -- who knew it would require vast sums of money, which is the lifeblood of their powerful political machine.

The unions raked in plenty of cash, but the $30 billion spent on the effort accomplished little else.

Those special interests also were behind the tricky constitutional amendment that resulted in wording being inserted into the Constitution declaring it to be a paramount duty of the state to provide high quality schools.

That added nothing except a vague, malleable phrase that has been used to thwart efforts to provide choice and real opportunity for poor students trapped in failing schools efforts that, shamefully, are still under way.

All sorts of mushy, touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy stuff can be passed off as worthy of being enshrined in the state's most important legal document.

So it was that, in the same year as the class-size amendment, we voted to pamper pregnant pigs, which made Florida a joke from coast to coast. Although it never was a problem, those who keep pigs in cages temporarily are now instructed exactly how to keep the expectant porkers comfortable.

The classroom-size amendment required that public schools up to grade 3 have no more than 18 students per classroom. Up to grade 8, it was limited to 22 and through grade 12 the limit was put at 25.

For those who survived public school classes of 30-35 students with no lasting (detectable) brain damage, it seemed a bit much especially since research showed the class sizes would have to be even smaller to make any noticeable difference.

According to Florida TaxWatch, the draconian measure has siphoned $30 billion from the budgets of Florida's struggling families for the building of new schools and the hiring of thousands of teachers.

TaxWatch is urging the Legislature to use its statutory authority to change the way the requirement is implemented, focusing on having smaller schools rather than classes.

Lawmakers could even put a measure on the 2016 ballot to eliminate the class-size requirement. A similar proposal passed in 2010 by a larger majority than the vote to accept it earlier, but not by enough to get it into the Constitution under a newer, higher standard.

The Legislature is considering some $500 million in tax relief this year. TaxWatch estimates a constitutional amendment modification could provide even more savings.

There is precedent for reconsideration of ill-advised votes. In 2000, voters approved a high-speed rail measure in Florida. In 2004, after seeing what it would entail, they reversed course.

Standards, accountability and choice are producing better results in the public schools. Smaller class sizes are not. It is time to put money now being wasted to better use.

Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as a policy analyst for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

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