State Politics

Florida education bills spark massive protest

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate voted to put class-size limits back on the ballot Thursday, while across the Capitol, security guards rushed to protect lawmakers from a hostile crowd after a House committee rammed through a bill that would tie teacher pay to test scores.

It was a chaotic finish to three days of lengthy policy debate that saw the passage of a tide of controversial education bills that could dramatically transform Florida’s public schools.

“In the past couple of days watching the session, we have watched them hurt our teachers, hurt our classrooms, and it’s going to continue,” said Karin Brown, president of the Florida PTA, to a cheering rally of 2,000 parents, students and teachers gathered at the Capitol to decry the education measures and funding cuts.

Students and parents who gathered for the annual PTA rally in Tallahassee lambasted the education legislation, too.

“It would help more if the legislators listened,” said Denise Cientron, a 15-year-old freshman at Palmetto High School. “It just seems like they keep on repeating the same things.”

Republican lawmakers praise the wide-ranging reform as a means of propelling struggling schools forward with limited budget dollars. The class-size legislation (SJR2) would let voters consider a new constitutional amendment that would gauge whether class-size restrictions have been met by measuring a school’s average, not by counting students in each classroom.

An amendment needs at least 60 percent support at the polls to be enacted.

In a 2002 ballot measure, voters said they wanted hard class counts starting in the 2010-11 school year.

The state has spent $16 billion implementing the amendment, with most of that going toward operational costs, such as teacher salaries. Another $350 million is needed to continue to downsize classes this fall, according to the Department of Education.

“We looked in the basement of the Old Capitol for the Confederate gold, and there wasn’t any,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who sponsored the legislation.

The proposed amendment has been embraced by superintendents, who argue hard class counts would cost too much and create problems with student enrollment.

But critics said the Legislature’s reluctance to sufficiently fund small classes has caused many of the challenges cited by school districts grappling to meet the constitutional standards. They say parents have made it clear that they will not vote for larger classes.

“You better have a plan B, because this is not going to pass,” said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, of Miami, the lone Republican to vote against the measure, gave a lecture on budget priorities prior to the 26-12 vote.

“We come up here and we pontificate all the time and it is almost like we know better than everyone else, and we don’t,” he said to an unusually quiet Senate floor.

Funding smaller classes during lean years is worth the fiscal headache, he said.

“I really believe that we have no higher calling than to try to help our kids and if that’s tough, well that’s what you got elected to do, to come up here and do the tough thing,” he said.

The classroom amendment issue still has to be voted on in the House, which is likely to take up the issue after the legislators’ spring break next week.

Emotional debate also unfolded Thursday in the House PreK-12 Policy Committee, where the meeting ended with sergeant-at-arms forming a barrier at the front of the committee room to protect lawmakers from an angry room full with educators.

Republican leaders forced the 9-6 vote on the tenure bill by cutting off debate, ignoring amendments and further public testimony. The Senate had passed a similar measure only a day before.

The bill makes it easier to fire teachers, limiting them to one-year contracts, and ties their pay increase to student test scores.

“Here we go,” said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami. “Here’s the process. Here’s the dog-and-pony show.”

John Legg, chairman of the House PreK-12 Policy Committee, said ineffective teachers are too often paid more than successful educators because of tenure.

“This is about the students of the state of Florida, to give them the opportunity to have a teacher that is qualified, that is going to meet the needs of those students,” he said.