Published Online: March 5, 2010

Class Size Proposal Heading to Fla. Senate Vote

A ballot proposal that would ask voters to loosen class size limits is headed for a floor vote in the Florida Senate where it appears to have enough votes to pass.

Similar measures have failed there in years gone by, but support has grown as the Legislature has faced growing revenue shortfalls and budget cuts over the past three years.

The proposed state constitutional amendment received final committee approval in the Senate on Thursday. The Ways and Means Committee's 15-8 vote was largely along party lines with Republicans in favor and all except one Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin, against.

The measure (SJR 2) sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and a similar proposal filed in the House by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, would revise a state constitutional amendment voters approved in 2002.

Even if it goes on the ballot and voters approved it by the required 60 percent in November, the revision would roll back but not stop the 2002 measure from going into full effect this fall, setting limits of 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grade and 25 for high school.

That citizen initiative got on the ballot through a petition campaign led by Kendrick Meek, now a Democratic congressman from Miami who is running for U.S. Senate, and the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

Proposed amendments to weaken the limits have passed previously in the House only to fail in the Senate. The last time the Senate voted on such a measure, it fell four votes short of the 24 needed to pass in the 40-member chamber.

This time, two Democrats, Siplin of Orlando and Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate, are co-sponsoring Gaetz' amendment. Also, two Republicans who opposed the 2006 proposal, Sens. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach and Rudy Garcia of Hialeah, voted for the proposal in committee Thursday.

That's a four-vote swing — the margin by which the 2006 proposal failed.

Weatherford's version (HJR 7039) has not yet had a committee hearing in the House.

Republican politicians and many school officials have long argued the 2002 amendment is too expensive — it has already cost $16 billion to phase in — and will cause too much disruption when fully implemented. Supporters say smaller class sizes have led to improved academic performance reflected by higher scores on standardized tests.

"This money will be taken away from the classroom and used to build buildings for the 19th student or whatever," said Sen. John Thrasher of Jacksonville, who also chairs the Florida Republican Party.

The revision would require that the limits be met only on a school average basis instead of in each classroom. That's the current requirement under the phase-in of the 2002 amendment.

The proposed change also would cap individual classrooms at no more than three children over the average limit for kindergarten through third grade and by five for the other grades.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, said the union agrees more flexibility is needed, but he argued that can be done by passing a law, not changing the constitution.

He told the committee the Florida Supreme Court already has reviewed the existing amendment and ruled the limits are goals, not requirements. The only requirement is a clause pertaining to the legislature, Meyer said.

"What is says is you, the Florida Legislature, have the obligation to make adequate provision — read that as money — because that's what it's about," he said. "You have the obligation to fund so that these goals can be met."

Thrasher disagreed, arguing that the constitution says "we shall not exceed" for each of the limits. The 2002 amendment uses the word "shall" only in the phrases "the Legislature shall make adequate provision" and "the Legislature shall provide sufficient funds."

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