Classroom by classroom, Florida public school districts continue the march to reduce the number of students and finally meet the mandate voters approved eight years ago.
Their deadline: Oct. 15, when the fall student counts take place.
But first, the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on Amendment 8, a ballot measure that would ask voters to reconsider the caps set by the 2002 class-size amendment.
The state’s teachers union is challenging the language in Amendment 8, calling it misleading and unclear. Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, says it also fails to tell voters that it could potentially change the way public education is funded.
Nonsense, says state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who co-sponsored Amendment 8. “There is no plan to take any resources from education,” he said.
After voters approved the class-size amendment in 2002, lawmakers created a plan to phase in class-size limits and have pumped $19 billion into the initiative.
Many complained that the amendment forced the state to put too much money into classroom construction rather than instruction. Repeated proposals to change things failed, though.
Only this year, with full compliance looming and school leaders complaining, did the Republican-dominated House and Senate reach consensus and put Amendment 8 on the ballot.
Initially slow to form, the “Vote No on 8” and “Yes on 8” campaigns have begun to gain steam.
“Most parents have focused on their kids in school,” said Ingrid Olsen, campaign coordinator for Vote No on 8. “As we move closer to the election, more people will be paying attention.”
Speakers for each side have started making the rounds to pitch their views to newspaper editorial boards and launched websites and Facebook pages.
“I can promise you that the word will get out,” Weatherford said.
Focusing the message is key for the Yes on 8 side, which faces an uphill battle with recent polls showing support for changes hovering below 40 percent. To pass, a constitutional amendment requires 60 percent voter approval.
Charter Schools USA and the Florida Chamber of Commerce each have given $25,000 to Protect Our Constitution, a political action committee that is running Yes on 8. The group spent $25,000 in late August to secure the services of Ron Sachs Communications, a Tallahassee firm that has coordinated other constitutional amendment campaigns in the past.
“Our campaign is going to make use of every hour, every day, until Election Day,” said Sachs.
Vote No on 8 has received $200,000 from the Public Education Defense Fund, a committee aligned with the teachers unions.
But representatives from both sides suggested that the real campaigning will rely heavily on people talking to people.
“Every county has a superintendent, a school board member, principals, parents and students affected,” Weatherford said. “You have a grass roots network that didn’t have to be created. It’s already there.”
The Legislature seeded the ground for this, requiring all school boards to make public presentations this fall about how they would implement the class-size amendment if unchanged. Across Florida, the reports focused largely on the expense of adding teachers and classrooms, the difficulty of shuffling schedules and other hardships that districts said they expect to face without more flexibility to deal with the extra students who arrive.
Many supporters of the original amendment accused lawmakers of requiring the presentations to scare voters in the weeks leading to the election.
Olsen said teachers and parents will combat these stories by getting the word out that small classes make a positive difference for their children.
Count Fund Education Now among them. Co-founder Linda Kobert said the Orlando-based parent network understands the need for flexibility in scheduling children’s classes, but it worries that the money associated with reducing class sizes will vanish if the requirements are lessened.
Kobert noted that the Legislature did not fund the $350 million needed to meet the final stage of the amendment, even as it imposed hefty penalties for failing to comply.
“If the people could trust the Legislature … to adequately fund public schools, then I think we wouldn’t be so afraid to let them tinker with class size,” she said.