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Class Size Change Advances to Full Senate

The initiative ease up a bit on the class size provision in the state Constitution got a vote of support from a key Senate committee Thursday, advancing it to the full Senate where it appears likely to win passage.

The move to change the class size provision, which phased in a class size capping system, began immediately after voters overwhelmingly approved it in 2002. Under current law, classes are capped 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 currently, schools must be under the cap at the grade-wide level. But at the start of the next school year, the limits are applied to individual classrooms, something that many school principals and the state Department of Education say will create chaos.

According to DOE lawyers, schools will break the law if a student moves into a school district and pushes a given class over the cap. Administrators would be forced to hire a new teacher to split a class in two or pay to bus students to another school that has room. Either way, the school would have to cough up extra money in already tight budget circumstances.

“We don't see any flexibility,” said state Education Commissioner Eric Smith.
Under the provision approved in a 15-8 vote by the Senate Ways and Means Committee Thursday, schools could stay at the grade-wide level limit instead of the individual classroom cap. That way, there will be some flexibility if students move into the district.

“I think we need to give parents and educators some hope that we won't be facing some of the difficulties they've indicated we will face if we don't have it,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is the sponsor of SJR 2.

Democrats in both chambers are highly opposed to the legislation as is the state teachers' union, the Florida Education Association. Democrats are heavily outnumbered in both chambers, however.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the FEA, told lawmakers that they needed to acknowledge that individual class sizes could go up under the provision as long as one class had a number low enough to balance it out. Class sizes have shrunk under the current law, which have resulted in higher achievement, he said, and parents want to see their kids in small classes.

“It is clearly a retreat from class size,” Meyer said about the bill.

To change the constitution, the bill would require three-fifths approval in the House and Senate, plus 60 percent voter approval on the November 2010 ballot. The measure has passed the House several times, and will likely do so again. The Senate, will be tougher, Gaetz acknowledged. He said he has not yet done a vote count, but he feels like it will come together.

“It's not a gamble, it's a heavy lift,” Gaetz said. “It will be a heavy lift to pass this through the Senate. It will be an even heavier lift to pass it in November of 2010. We're going to have to make clear and convincing arguments and those parents and educators back home who believe we ought to have some limited local flexibility will need to make the case to their friends and neighbors.”

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