THE GREATEST GENERATION’S GREATEST POST-WAR GIFT TO FLORIDIANS: THE 1947 LEGISLATURE’S EDUCATION REFORMS


By Robert Sanchez


December 7, 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor. The surprise attack sank most of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet and led to America’s formal entry into World War II, which by then was already raging in Europe, North Africa, and the Far East.

The Pearl Harbor attack’s death toll of 2,402 included 1,175 of those aboard the USS Arizona. The sunken hull of that battleship is now the site of a memorial that opened in 1962 and receives some two million visitors each year.

Five years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, five of the few remaining survivors were interviewed for a video. In it they shared their recollections of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt – in his speech asking Congress for a declaration of war – described as “a date which will live in infamy.” You’ll find their video here: Veterans Remember: 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.


President Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan on December 8, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.


By the time World War II ended in 1945, it had proved to be the second bloodiest in U.S. history, with an overall death toll of more than 400,000, including 291,557 combat deaths. For Americans, it’s a sad total exceeded only by the death toll in the Civil War.

Worldwide, according to credible estimates, World War II directly or indirectly caused more than 60 million deaths – not only as a result of the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian targets but also a result of factors such as famine and disease.

So the end of World War II, which had been preceded by more than a decade of the Great Depression’s economic gloom, was a huge relief for Americans in general and especially for Florida residents, who had felt an outsized impact of the war.

From 1942 through most of 1945, tourism – one of the mainstays of the Florida’s economy – had dried up because of travel restrictions, adding to the economic hardships carried over from the Florida land boom’s bust and the ensuing Great Depression.

Additional disruptions occurred and tensions arose as some 2,122,100 troops underwent training at the state’s numerous military bases during the war while German U-boats prowled the waters just offshore from the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.


A German U-boat sank the American tanker Republic near Jupiter Inlet in February 1942. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


In 1947 and thereafter until 1968, Florida’s government was still operating under the outdated state Constitution of 1885. It provided that the Legislature would convene in regular session biennially in April of the odd-numbered years following election years.

Thus it was not until April of 1947 that the first post-World War II regular session of the Florida Legislature convened to begin its allotted 60-days of deliberations. Its members included a smattering of lawmakers who had returned from military service – part of a cohort later dubbed “the Greatest Generation.”

Alas, it was not to be the greatest legislative session in Florida history. For one thing, it was plagued by a major scandal in which one House member accused others of accepting bribes from gambling interests.

To learn more about that scandal, check out $500 and a case of Scotch: The 1947 Florida Legislative Bribery Scandal by Michael Hoover of Seminole Community College.


Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Nor was the bribery scandal the 1947 Legislature’s only problem. The allotment of seats was not what would be regarded as constitutional nowadays. Fifteen years later, in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling in Baker v. Carr held that legislative districts must be equal in population.

In 1947, Florida’s population was again growing rapidly at a pace not seen since the boom years of the 1920s. The post-World War II growth was buoyed by an influx of ex-GIs who had undergone their military training in the state and liked what they saw.

There was a catch, however: While the coastal counties in the southern parts of the state were growing rapidly, the Legislature remained in the grip of small rural counties that were mostly in the northern parts of the state. Their legislative bloc was dubbed “the Pork Chop Gang,” and it managed to cling to power for decades.

How badly out of proportion to population were the districts? Consider the data: Jefferson County (pop. 10,385) had one state senator all to itself, as did Nassau County (12,755) and Columbia (18,622). In contrast, also represented by one state senator apiece were Dade County (488,689), Duval (301,711), and Hillsborough (248,536). You get the picture.

Moreover, it got even worse as time wore on without a change The population figures cited above were from the 1940 U.S. Census. By the time in the 1960s when the federal courts finally forced Florida’s reluctant lawmakers to adopt the one-man, one-vote principle for legislative districts, the regional population disparities were even greater.


Courtesy of Florida Memory.


All of this is to say that the 1947 Florida Legislature was hardly a model of fairness or even decorum, what with shouting matches about bribery and various other indiscretions. This makes its achievements in education reforms all the more remarkable and, perhaps, proves the old adage that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

What was it that the 1947 Legislature, warts and all, managed to accomplish? The answer was summarized well in a report that Florida State University’s School of Public Administration made to the Legislative Reference Bureau in 1950:

“The 1947 school law brought about an increase in expenditures which provided better opportunities for all children, better equalization of educational opportunities, better qualified teachers, more instructional supplies, better school facilities, more adequate transportation, and a tenth month for planning and evaluation on the part of the staff. Florida should be justly proud of its progress educationally.”

Spending more on education certainly was a desirable goal at a time when Florida still tended to compare its schools to those in the other laggard states of the Deep South, but pumping more money into schools wasn’t the only thing the 1947 Legislature did.

The basic premise of its “Minimum Foundation Program” was to obtain the money from wherever the money was and spend it wherever the pupils were. This hastened the demise of separate taxing districts within counties and led to Florida’s current system of countywide school districts, an arrangement formalized in the “new” state Constitution adopted in 1968.

What this has meant is that Florida’s taxpayers arguably get more bang for each buck spent on education. Florida’s 67 countywide school districts stand in stark contrast to the 1,254 school districts in Texas, the 1,181 in California, or the 950 in New York.

Each separate school district entails having a superintendent, a governing board, and a bureaucracy sufficient to respond to the paperwork demands of the state and federal bureaucrats on issues ranging from school lunches and the curriculum to Title IX compliance, school bus safety, and the racial and ethnic diversity of the staff.

The rapidly rising cost of the sustaining these burgeoning bureaucracies has diverted billions of dollars from instructional uses, namely the classroom teaching that is ostensibly the primary purpose of education.

Consider, for instance, what Dr. Benjamin Scafidi reported in “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools,” a study published in 2012 by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

According to Dr. Scafidi, from 1992 through 2009 the number of students in U.S. public schools increased by 17.2 percent. In the same period, the number of administrators and other non-teaching staff increased by 45.7 percent.

In some states, the disproportionate changes were even more pronounced than those at the national level. For instance, in Ohio, which has 1,093 school districts, student enrollment increased by a modest 1.9 percent while the number of administrators and other non-teaching staff increased by a whopping 44.4 percent.

Florida, in contrast, fared much better. The increase in administrators and other non-teaching staff – 40.6 percent – was not much more than the increase in the number of students – 36.2 percent.

Florida’s countywide districts also avoid a costly folly seen just across the state’s northern border and common in many other states that have city, village, township, county, and independent school districts.

In Thomas County, Georgia, there is a city school district in the county seat of Thomasville and a county school district for the rest of the county. County high school students from one side of the city are routinely bused through the city and past its high school to the nearby county high school. It’s a system good for the employment of bus drivers but not for the students or the taxpayers.

In Florida, if each city – rich or poor – were to have its own school district, there would be more than 100 separate school districts in the three southeastern counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach, plus the possibility of countless other school districts in multi-city counties such as Pinellas, Orange, and Polk.

Florida’s move to countywide districts also paved the way for the state to move more quickly than many other states in response to the national concern that arose when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957. The launch raised fears of a “missile gap” and raised questions about the teaching of science and technology in America’s schools.

One way to respond to Sputnik and improve instruction in science, technology, math, and foreign languages was outlined in a 1959 book, The American High School Today, by former Harvard President James Bryant Conant.

Conant’s influence was well explained in 1983 by Paul D. Bartlett in the National Science Foundation’s biographical memoir of Conant:

“Between 1957 and 1963, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation, Conant conducted a study in depth of American high schools… The first of the books to emerge from this study was The American High School Today, published in 1959, which offered specific recommendations for numerous improvements…

 “Since the inclusion of an important degree of scope in the curriculum required a critical size of the faculty, Conant urged consolidation of small high schools into comprehensive schools. Criticism of American education was widespread at the time in the wake of the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and The American High School Today was on the best-seller list for several weeks. The controversy it provoked helped give impetus to extensive school reforms.”

In Florida’s countywide school districts, consolidation of small high schools into larger ones provided the critical mass of students and faculty necessary to offer advanced courses in subjects such as calculus, physics, and foreign languages – courses that typically enroll only a small minority of the students.

In addition to funneling more money into education and paving the way for countywide school districts to ensure that less of the money was wasted in duplicating the administrative overhead in dozens of little fiefdoms, the 1947 Florida Legislature managed to plant the seeds for one more key educational advancement that would come to fruition later.

Its signature achievement, the Minimum Foundation bill, included funds for a study that subsequently led to the creation of Florida’s statewide system of public junior colleges.

Based on a plan drawn up by Dr. James Wattenbarger and enthusiastically supported by Governor LeRoy Collins, the system has evolved into a mix of community colleges and state colleges, with the latter offering baccalaureate degrees in high-demand fields.

The college system has expanded to the point that there is now a campus within commuting distance of every high school graduate. Were it not for the foresight of the mostly rural lawmakers in the 1947 Florida Legislature, today’s Florida would be a very different place.

In April of 2017, the midpoint of Florida’s next regular legislative session will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the convening of the 1947 Legislature. It would not be inappropriate for today’s lawmakers to pause for a moment to express their thanks for the Greatest Generation’s greatest postwar gift to Floridians: the school reforms of 1947.


Featured Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons