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Proposal to Loosen Fla. Class-Size Limits Fails

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A ballot proposal that would have loosened class size reduction requirements failed Monday, but the state's tax commission agreed to keep it alive for a possible revote next week.

The proposed state constitutional amendment would have allowed five more students in each class, but existing limits would still have had to be met on a school average basis. That could potentially save the state millions of dollars by avoiding the need to hire more teachers and build additional classrooms.

The measure would have modified an existing amendment voters approved in 2002. It calls for classes of no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school, effective in the 2010-11 school year.

The 2002 amendment was enacted through a citizen initiative led by U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who called Monday's vote "a victory for Florida's children and a loss for Tallahassee's insiders."

See Also
See other stories on education issues in Florida. See data on Florida's public school system.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican legislative leaders had opposed the initiative, arguing that it would be too expensive.

An implementing law has since phased-in the class-size limits. This year they must be met on a school average basis, but the law next year would require each classroom to comply—two years ahead of the constitutional requirement.

School administrators told the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission the new amendment would provide flexibility to avoid the need to hire a new teacher and start another class if just one student above the limits should enroll.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, said the statewide teachers union is working with the Legislature on a bill that would provide that kind of flexibility without changing the constitution. He cited a Florida Supreme Court decision, which cleared the 2002 amendment for the ballot, as saying it requires the Legislature to provide money to meet the limits rather than applying them directly to school districts.

Commissioner Roberto "Bobby" Martinez, a member of the State Board of Education, sponsored the new amendment and disagreed with Meyer.

"There is no way one can change the constitution through legislation," said Martinez, a Miami lawyer. "It just cannot be done."

Three Votes Shy

The commission voted 14-10 in favor of the proposed amendment, but it takes 17 votes to put a measure on the November ballot. One commissioner, Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer, was absent for the vote.

Commissioner Jim Scott, a former Florida Senate president, voted against the proposal as a tactical move, which allowed him to move to reconsider in hopes of finding a compromise, possibly an idea floated by state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

See Also
For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Class Size.

A nonvoting commissioner, Gelber suggested that the necessary flexibility could be provided by simply requiring schools to meet the class size requirements on a specific date early in each school year.

That's what the legislation that the teacher's union is supporting would do. If additional students enroll after the deadline and other solutions don't work, the limits could be exceeded by up to three students in kindergarten through third grade and by five students in all other grades. The limits, though, would still have to be met on an average basis.

The commission rejected an attempted compromise that would have required any money saved by the amendment to be used for other school purposes such as increasing teacher salaries.

House Schools and Learning Chairman Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, told the commission that would have been difficult to comply with because there's no way to tell how much money would be saved.

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