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Class Size Adjustment Wins First Round Vote

The push to scale back a Constitutional provision that capped class sizes in public schools across the state passed its first test Tuesday, winning approval from a key Senate committee.

Lawmakers and educators have been debating the merits of the provision, which phased in a class size capping system, since voters overwhelmingly approved it in 2002. Under current law, classes are capped at at 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.

The capping was phased in so that in the current year, schools must be under the cap at the grade-wide level. But at the start of the 2010-2011 school year, the caps are applied to individual classrooms, something that many school administrators and the Department of Education say will be problematic.

Schools would essentially be breaking the law if a student moved into a school district mid year and pushed a given class over the cap. Administrators have questioned whether they would have to hire a new teacher to split a class in two or pay to push students to another school that has room. Either way, it will cost the schools money.

“They are just befuddled about how to do this,” said Sen. Steven Wise, R-Jacksonville, chair of the Senate public schools budget committee.

The bill approved by the Pre-K Education committee Tuesday would put a Constitutional amendment on the November 2010 ballot to revise the provision so that schools only have to meet the grade wide average, not the hard per classroom caps. It would require three-fifths of the Legislature to vote in favor of it to make the ballot, and would then need 60 percent voter approval.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who was the lone vote against the proposal, said she could not envision that voters would full heartedly support a change to class size laws given their previous support for the issue.

The state's teacher union, Florida Education Association, is still opposing the change to the constitutional amendment, arguing that schools have gotten consistent funding because of the class size provision. The group has argued previously that some statutory changes could be made that would allow the number of students to be counted once durng the year, so that additions later in the school year would not penalize the school.

Ron Meyer, an attorney representing the union, told lawmakers that altering the class size provision would be leaving classrooms “overcrowded”and incapable of fulfilling the goals set out by the 2002 amendment.

“We should be honest with the public that we're stepping back from the final implementation of class size,” Meyer said.

An identical proposal passed the House last year, but Senate President Jeff Atwater said the votes weren't there in the Senate. However, at a press conference earlier this month, bill sponsor Sen. Don Gaetz said that the leadership of both chambers were both pushing for the change.

The House version of the proposal will be heard Wednesday morning in the House Education Policy Council.

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