State Politics

House agrees to put class-size to voters

TALLAHASSEE — A longtime push to scale back the 2002 class-size amendment scored its biggest victory yet Thursday as the Republican-led Florida House agreed to put the question to voters this fall.

After less than 45 minutes of debate, House members voted 77-41 in favor of a constitutional amendment approved last month in the Senate.

The three-fifths vote by both chambers gets the measure on the ballot in November and reopens a passionate campaign that has long pitted public school teachers and parents against school administrators and Republican lawmakers who claim current class-size limits are impossible to fund.

“If we don’t create flexibility, we will have rezoning. We will have busing all over the state of Florida,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the House bill.

Opponents claim Republican leaders simply want to lessen the state’s constitutional responsibility to fund smaller class sizes.

“Class size does matter,” said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg. “It makes a difference to students and those who teach them.”

The constitution currently limits class sizes to 18 students in grades pre-kindergarten through third, 22 students in fourth through eighth and 25 students in high school.

Superintendents have been allowed to meet those caps by district and, now, school averages, but the constitution requires a shift toward hard classroom counts starting in July.

The proposed amendment would forgo hard caps in favor of maintaining school averages and would increase the maximum class-size limit by three students in pre-kindergarten through third, and by five for other grades.

But the measure does little to alleviate the immediate strain on school districts that are already scrambling to project student enrollments and hire sufficient teachers to comply with the constitutional limits in the new school year.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who supports the constitutional change, said school districts have been advised to continue scaling down class sizes despite the looming ballot battle.

The state’s largest teachers union opposes the amendment.

“We don’t believe it’s necessary,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education

Association. “They just don’t want to pay for schools.”

Since 2003, the state has spent nearly $16 billion to implement the class-size amendment, most of that toward hiring 30,000 new teachers.

As of last fall, 33 percent of pre-kindergarten classes did not meet the hard class-size caps. At the middle and high school levels, respectively, 30 percent and 38 percent of classes were out of compliance, according to the Department of Education.

Overall, not one of the state’s 75 school districts had met the hard class-size counts.

Bridging that gap would cost an additional $350 million, according to the DOE.