Class-size amendment may get an overhaul

01/11/08 Mitch E. Perry
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday

Class size reduction limits that Florida voters approved in 2002 could be loosened through a new constitutional amendment introduced today by a tax and budget overhaul panel.

The commission's Governmental Service Committee voted 6-1 to introduce the proposed amendment. It will return to committee for more discussion, possible modification and approval before going before the full commission, which could put it on the November ballot.

Former Tampa state Sen. Les Miller cast the only dissenting vote, saying he believes people knew what they were voting for back in 2002. Miller said he doubts it would get the 60 percent required to pass.

The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission is picking up where the Republican-controlled Legislature left off on the issue. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush, also a Republican, and GOP lawmakers began trying to modify the limits almost immediately after the citizen initiative passed, arguing it would be too expensive.

Democrats have generally opposed such changes, and the last legislative proposal failed in 2006, Bush's final year, by four votes in the Senate as moderate Republicans joined the opposition.

The current governor, Charlie Crist, has supported class size funding.

Damien Filer is a longtime advocate for the class-size amendment. He says Florida has had a of overcrowding in schools for years, if not decades, which led to Floridians approving the small class-size amendment.

The 2002 amendment limits classes to 18 students in kindergarten through third-grade, 22 in fourth- through eighth-grade and 25 in high school beginning with the 2010-11 school year. In the meantime, it is being phased in.

Schools first had to meet the limits on a districtwide average basis and currently as a school average. The new proposal would keep the school average requirement. Individual classrooms, though, would have a "hard cap" of five students above the average.

Department of Education officials estimate the proposal would save the state about $3 billion in operating expenses over the first two years, assuming it goes into effect for the 2009-10 school year. No estimate was offered on potential construction savings.

Florida’s budget constraints show no sign of abating in a worsening econmy so there has been talk among supporters of tweaking the class-size measure.

But Damien Filer, who worked on the constitutional amendment back in 2002, says that it’s the Legislature who wrote the language on how to implement the measure.

Filer says he’s not against "tweaking" the limits.

A spokesman for the Florida Education Association told WMNF that his union is not overly concerned just yet – since it still needs to be voted on before the full commission before making it to the November ballot. Currently the Commission is contemplating about 30 possible amendments to the Constitution.

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