DMI Blog

Karin Dryhurst

You Get What You Pay For

Word is Miami-Dade County Schools might be getting in on a lawsuit against the state of Florida for not fully funding class size limits.

The goal is to stop the state from imposing millions of dollars in fines required by the Class Size Amendment if districts don’t drop class sizes by the fall. The constitutional amendment was passed by Florida voters in 2002. But the state has failed to provide the extra teachers and classrooms that would allow class sizes of 25 students in high schools, especially after the population boom earlier in the decade.

And therein lies the problem with constitutional ballot measures. Voters want something. Ballot campaigns muddle the costs and advantages. An unfunded promise attaches itself to state law.

We saw this in California when a voter-approved cap on property tax rates provoked a fiscal crisis brought on by the recession.

Less devastating, who could forget what a joke “the bullet train” became in Florida when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 that required the state to establish high-speed rail with construction to begin in 2003 but again left the project unfunded. Voters ended up repealing the amendment following a "Derail the Bullet Train" campaign. It took the 2009 federal stimulus to bring the idea back to reality.

Florida voters, used to overcrowded public schools, wanted smaller class sizes for their kids. But in a state with no income tax, with districts heavily reliant on property taxes, and in the bottom quarter for contributions to education, smaller class sizes didn’t happen. And the recession only made things worse as property values—and with them, tax revenues—have plummeted. Broward County right above Miami-Dade just laid off 500 teachers.

What’s so pernicious about leaders like Sen. Kyl claiming tax cuts don’t have to be paid for is that voters believe it. Voters hate paying taxes, but they also hate overcrowded schools. But officials are often dishonest about how one begets the other. And states often can't run the deficits to fund programs in the absence of taxes.

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Posted at 2:12 PM, Jul 14, 2010 in Education
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