Jeb Bush's Delicate Florida Balancing Act

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Jeb Bush was euphoric on election night, but now he might be secretly wishing Democrat Bill McBride had beat him. While McBride gets to return to a life of wealthy retirement in Tampa, Florida's governor has to confront the biggest challenge of his political career: how to implement an expensive amendment to the state constitution that requires smaller public school class sizes. To add insult to injury, he campaigned against the idea, but now has to enforce it. Is that laughter coming from Tampa?

The class size amendment will force a dramatic transformation in Florida schools, which are struggling right now to teach the kids they have and rapidly taking in more. By 2010, the state must have no more than 18 kids in pre-kindergarten to 3rd grade classes, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in classes for grades 9-12. The state must also implement gradual reductions along the way. The idea is a noble one; after all there are Florida schools where 45 kids sit in one room, or five swollen classes meet in the gym. Like many noble ideas, it's also expensive. Florida already has a shortage of both teachers and classrooms. Mandatory class sizes will require a lot more of both.

That's why Jeb called the amendment a bad idea throughout his reelection campaign. At one point, he got himself in trouble when he told a group of legislators he had a couple of “devious plans” up his sleeve if it passed. He didn't realize a reporter was present. McBride was a big advocate of the amendment, making education the centerpiece of his campaign. But Bush was able to attack McBride's inability to explain how he would pay for the costly measure. Bush predicted McBride would be forced to raise taxes tenfold. But elections never seem to have clear results in Florida. Voters reelected Bush because of his stand that he wouldn't raise taxes, but also voted for the amendment, which will make it extremely difficult for him not to. That's part of the problem with ballot initiatives. A smaller class size measure looks like a great idea in the voting booth, but contains no instructions on how to implement and pay for it.

That's democracy, though, so Jeb has been working hard to put the measure into practice. But he's certainly not happy about it. The day after the election he told reporters, "The first step of the process will be to seek input from people who supported this issue. As you know, I didn't." Last week he met with groups he rarely talks to, many of who opposed his reelection, like the state's teachers union and PTAs. This might be a shrewd strategy, because if the class size effort fails, Bush can always blame its advocates and remind voters he never supported the measure anyway. Petulance and blame-shifting, however, are not very attractive qualities for a man who may run for senator or president one day.

If Jeb decides to attack the issue head-on, his biggest problem is money. How will he pay for all the additional teachers and classrooms at a time when the state is wrestling with its biggest budget crisis in over a decade. No one knows how much the class size amendment will cost, but estimates range from $8 billion to $27 billion between now and 2010. The state may have to hire 24,789 new teachers just for next year. Bush cut taxes repeatedly during his first term and counts it as one of his biggest accomplishments. He's not going to raise them unless he has no other choice, and even if he wanted to, more conservative Republicans in the state house of representatives have sworn it will never pass. Another revenue option on the table is allowing electronic gambling machines at racetracks and jai alai stadiums, where gambling already goes on. But it's not a reliable cash source, and who wants to campaign for national office as the governor who brought video slot machines to the state with the largest population of senior citizens in America?

Faced with such attractive choices, Jeb is currently looking for wiggle room. The amendment is rather vague on specifics, so he has asked the state supreme court (not friendly to Bushes, if you remember 2000) to interpret it. What do the class size limits mean practically? Does the average size of classes in a school, or maybe a district, count? How much freedom does he have to change school zones within districts, bus students to less crowded schools and implement double shifts and year-round schools. He will end up exploring every possible solution to this measure. He needs to because it will in all likelihood define his second term. Boy, Tampa sure can be nice this time of year.