State Politics

Funding drives debate on class size


Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — There’s almost no reason to mention Will Weatherford and Frederica Wilson in the same sentence.

He’s a player in the Republican-led Legislature — young leader from Wesley Chapel, sharp looks, affable personality — and the designated speaker of the House for 2012.

She’s the can’t-miss Democratic state senator from Miami whose color-coordinated outfits are punctuated by “sport hats’’ often covered in sequins. A veteran legislator now running for Congress, her soft speaking voice belies a forceful demeanor.

And yet, these two lawmakers personify a battle this session over rewriting the state’s class-size amendment, each with a stake in preserving or creating a legacy over the emotional issue.

Weatherford is sponsoring a House resolution to put a new constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot that would allow schools to satisfy the requirement by meeting a schoolwide average, rather than having to hit maximums in each classroom.

Wilson wants to defeat the resolution. She is pressing her colleagues to protect the vote of 52 percent of Floridians who put class-size standards in the state Constitution in 2002.

He says: “Do we fight changing it because it’s what we’ve always done? Or do we do the right thing, do we do what I would consider to be statesmanlike and say, ‘Hey, maybe we were wrong, maybe we can fix the Constitution and make it workable but still maintain the integrity of the program.’ ”

She says: “Whatever it takes for us to keep our word to the people of Florida . . . I think we need to do it. They voted. . . . It’s law.”

Hardly a thing in common, these two. Except their passion on this issue.

Of all the effects of the divisive class-size amendment, forcing the Legislature to spend money on schools at a higher level than it otherwise might have is a big one. In the last six years, nearly $13 billion has gone toward implementing the reductions.

And it has achieved its goal. In 2002-03, the average class size for pre-kindergarten through third grade was 23. This year, it’s 16.

But Tallahassee has chafed under the mandated spending all along the way, led for years by then-Gov. Jeb Bush who tried more than once to change the amendment. This year, however, could be different. As the final phase looms, there’s another $8 billion forecast to be spent just as lawmakers confront an imploding budget.

Enter Weatherford, with a solution that is far less reaching than past ideas, and gaining steam.

Lawmakers with big ambitions cut their teeth on big-issue legislation that requires policy acumen and political skill. Class size is one of those issues for Weatherford. At 29, he’s in his second House term, married to the daughter of former House speaker Allan Bense, and father of a 1-year-old daughter.

Growing up in Pasco County, he was homeschooled a while, but mostly attended public schools. Still, personal experience is not behind this crusade.

“People are coming to me on their hands and knees saying, ‘Please help us make this work,’” he says.

He calls it a common-sense solution, to give administrators the flexibility to manage their schools and will tell you he has not talked to a “single administrator, principal, superintendent of schools or school board member who thinks’’ class size works as-is. He says we’ve already enjoyed the benefits of the amendment and now can avoid the “astronomical” cost.

That last part is what’s getting traction.

“Class size certainly has long-term, billion-dollar implications,” Weatherford says. “Because of that, yes, I think it’s very important and I’m going to put all my heart and soul into it.”

Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, is a vocal opponent of the effort, but he praises Weatherford’s approach.

“The fact that he took two of my amendments when he didn’t have to?” says Kiar. “The fact that they can get this passed without the Democrats’ vote? The fact that he’s still trying to do this every time I see him? I think he really, really deserves a lot of credit.”

When the Senate version of Weatherford’s resolution comes before the pre-K-12 policy committee, Vice Chairwoman Frederica Wilson listens intently to passionate speeches in favor of it. She sits silent as fellow committee members show support, too, including a Democrat.

At last, this longtime employee of Miami-Dade public schools, a former teacher, principal and school board member, speaks.

“Leave the class size amendment alone,” she says, her voice rising. “The people of Florida have spoken. And they spoke loudly.”

After Wilson was elected to the state House in 1998, one of her first bills was class size. Through four years in the House and now seven years in the state Senate, this 66-year-old grandmother “has been one of the most passionate, powerful voices for quality education,” says Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic leader.

“As people try to undermine it (class size), she kind of gets her hackles up,” Rich said, “and rightfully so.”

For Wilson, the battle is personal, especially as she seeks the U.S. House seat being vacated by Senate candidate Kendrick Meek, who led the effort to get class size on the 2002 ballot.

“I’m very passionate about children and I’m very passionate about people not really understanding the real needs of educators and children,” Wilson says. “Many people have not been in the schools since they graduated and they’re here making laws about schools. It’s amazing.”

That’s not a shot at Weatherford, Wilson says, but it’s clear she has more respect for those who have been in the education trenches.

Despite the Republican advantage, Wilson thinks she can prevail if Democrats “stand strong and tall there are some moderate Republicans who will cross over and vote with us. It happens every time.”

Weatherford said he just wants to put the issue before voters one more time, which will happen if three-fifths of both chambers pass the resolution. After that, it would take 60 percent of voters to approve a change.

“If the voters say, ‘No, you know, we meant what we said, it doesn’t need more flexibility,’” he says, “then we’ll live with it.”