Group urges state to limit exemptions


Published: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 1:28 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - The campaign that got class-size reduction onto the ballot says the state should close tax exemptions to get the money to build more classrooms and hire more teachers.
Lawmakers don't need to cut other programs and shouldn't consider expanding the state's voucher program, according to a report issued Thursday by the Coalition to Reduce Class Size.
The constitutional provision approved by voters in November imposes caps on the number of students that can be assigned to each teacher.
By 2010, no classroom can have more than 18 students through third grade, 22 students in grades four through eight and 25 students in grades 9 through 12. Implementation must begin next year, with the state required to provide enough money to lower the average class size by two students.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Miami Democrat who led the class-size campaign, repeated his criticism of the budget proposal made by Gov. Jeb Bush, a passionate opponent of the constitutional amendment.
"Governor Bush's budget proposal for class size is the anatomy of a devious plan," Meek said in a statement released by the campaign, referring to a comment Bush made during the campaign that he had a "devious plan" to deal with the provision if it was approved by voters.
Bush said his comment was made in jest. The report recommends reviewing items exempted from the state sales tax and repealing the exemptions for things like adult entertainment, ostrich feed and stadium skyboxes. Last year, then Senate President John McKay, a Bradenton Republican, waged an uphill battle to review all exemptions.
The groups also said some of the corporate tax cuts enacted in the last four years should be erased. Bush, however, argues that Florida's tax collections grew this year because of the economic stimulation of those tax cuts.
While the governor's budget recommendations would increase overall spending, it proposes cuts to programs for troubled teens, health care for people with serious illnesses and transportation.
And Bush blames the cuts on class-size. He includes $628 million to hire teachers to reduce class size and recommends that the state generate $2.4 billion for classroom construction by bonding tax collections on utility bills.
Meek has argued that the estimates of the cost of class-size reduction are inflated.
The class-size group report, written with People for the American Way, said lawmakers must first get accurate data on classroom sizes before making any decisions. Districts should rank schools and spend the money they get on the schools that are the most crowded.
The report also said voters approved the class-size provision after a campaign that focused on public schools, not spending tax dollars on vouchers for private-school tuition.
"Trying to implement the amendment through a voucher program that utilizes private school classrooms would amount to a 'bait and switch' that disrespects the intent of Florida voters," the report reads.
One suggestion made by the report is to use "satellite learning centers" - offices or other buildings near schools - that can be used to provide space for students and teachers.
In his class-size proposal last week, Bush said school districts should be given a "tool box" of options to meet voter's orders to reduce class sizes, including vouchers, and said those tools could be used as hammers against districts that don't act.
But Bush said he didn't expect many of the 67 districts would opt to offer students vouchers to go to private schools, or that the state would have to get tough with any for not lowering class size.
The governor also recommended that charter schools, which are public schools organized and run by private groups, not be included in the class-size requirements.
Thursday, Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said the governor had "made a thoughtful proposal on how to move forward with implementation."
His recommendations provide for local flexibility "in a way that doesn't destroy their focus on rising student achievement," she said.
RECOMMENDATIONS
  • The report recommends reviewing items exempted from the state sales tax and repealing the exemptions for things like adult entertainment, ostrich feed and stadium skyboxes.
  • The groups said some of the corporate tax cuts enacted in the last four years should be erased.
    n The report said voters approved the class-size provision to focus on public schools, not spending tax dollars on vouchers for private-school tuition.
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