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Decision on Class Size Now Up to the Voters

It's now up to the voters whether to roll back a bit the caps they placed on classroom sizes in 2002.

With a 77-41 vote, the House signed off on a measure Thursday that would ask the voters to change the terms of a constitutional provision that dictates the sizes of classrooms in Florida public schools. Sixty percent of the voters must approve it for the change to take effect.

In 2002, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would cap class sizes at 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school. Smaller classes have been phased in since 2002, but at the start of the 2010 school year, every classroom would have to meet those hard caps. The joint resolution would roll back the requirement so that class size would be calculated at a grade-level average, not an individual classroom cap. So, some classes could potentially go above the original capped number.

Changing the class size provisions has proved contentious – Democrats against the change, Republicans for it – and the education community doesn’t agree on it. The teachers' union has mounted a campaign against it, but school administrators and school board officials have supported the tweak.

Administrators have said they fear that the hard caps would back them into a corner if they were at maximum capacity and more students moved into the school district. If all third grade classes were at 18 students and a student moved into the district, administrators said they believed they would have to break up a class or bus that student to another school. Either they'd have to spend a lot of money by creating a new class or they'd be in violation of the law.

The union, the Florida Education Association, in contrast, doesn't believe the constitution needs to be changed. It has favored a statutory change that would count the number of students at the beginning of the year, but not penalize schools if more students arrive later in the year.

Democrats in debate maintained that smaller class sizes as dictated in the 2002 amendment are what the voters want and that Florida schools have seen results from the caps.

“Class size does matter.,” said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg. “It matters to children and to those who teach them.”

The measure will appear on the November 2010 ballot and both sides are likely to mount a public campaign to sway voters. A line in the House budget actually requires school districts to publicize the ballot measure, which elicited outrage among Democrats who said it was akin to campaigning with public funds. The Senate has not included that language in its budget.

FEA President Andy Ford said after the vote that the union still hasn't fully developed a campaign plan to fight the class size change, but said it will be fully engaged on the issue. Rep. Will Weatherford, R, Wesley Chapel, the House sponsor, said the bill was not a repeal of the class size amendment, but a move to give schools flexibility while still keeping class sizes relatively low.

“We have achieved what the integrity of the original amendment intended to do,” he said.

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