Class (size) warfare in Florida

The battle lines are being drawn again in the fight over class size.

Before its passage in November of 2002, the Florida class-size amendment was condemned in nearly apocalyptic terms. Its most noted critic, then-Governor Jeb Bush, claimed it would "block out the sun" if passed by Floridians.

The state's voters ignored his concerns regarding the deleterious effects the law might have on education funding. But ever since then, Republicans in Tallahassee have tried to scale back or scuttle the measure altogether.

A new measure from Republican State Representative Will Weatherford is a case in point. His proposed change, which would ultimately have to go before the voters, would provide flexibility to school districts as the final part of the law takes effect. But supporters of the amendment, remembering the hostility it has long faced, see no merit in the Wesley Chapel legislator's bill.

The class-size law currently calls for school districts throughout the state to maintain school averages, which means that the 18-student level in pre-K through 3rd grade can still be maintained if there are more than 20 students in a class, as long as the overall average is 18 or below. The class-size limit is 22 in grades 4 thru 8, and 25 students in high school.

But some school administrators say they will face Armageddon at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. That's when every class in the state must adhere to a hard cap on numbers per class.

Speaking last week in Tampa at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County's annual breakfast with state legislators, Weatherford called the implementation of the law "cumbersome and problematic." He warmed up the audience for his dissent by saying, "There's nothing scarier in politics than a bad idea that sounds good. And that's exactly what this is."

The legislation that Weatherford is sponsoring would maintain the status quo. That calls for an average of 18, 22 and 25 students per class for grades pre-K thru 3rd grade, middle school and high school, with an expanded hard cap.

Sounds reasonable? Not to Damian Filer, who worked to get the initiative on the ballot eight years ago.

"They've tried this every year since we passed it in 2002," he says. "They had a repeal initiative prepared within 30 days in the legislature."

Weatherford's comments received verbal affirmations at the Children's Board breakfast. School Board member April Griffin characterized class size as a South Florida issue, while her colleague Candy Olson was caustic in her denunciation.

To meet the requirement of the hard cap this fall, many districts would have to hire new teachers, which in turn would cost more money. Steve Hegarty, spokesman for Hillsborough County schools, says that enrollment in the district has been flat for the past few years, yet the district built four new schools in 2008, and five last year. Why? To accommodate the class-size amendment.

Adding to the political nature of the debate is that the man considered to have been the chief architect of the legislation, Miami Congressman Kendrick Meek, will have his name on the same statewide ballot this November, as the probable Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

So how effective has the measure actually been? Last year the Florida Department of Education released a research study that said class-size reduction is not a cost-effective way to improve student performance, and that investments in educator professional development and quality of instructional staff have shown similar impact.

But Broward County House Democrat Marty Kiar doesn't buy that. He believes much of the recent gains the state has made in education rankings can be attributed to the class-size amendment, saying, "I don't think those learning gains have anything to do with the FCAT. And it's not about properly funding the schools, because we don't do that, but I think it has solely to do with class size, and I get very concerned when they try to tamper with this."

The Florida Teachers Association is also against scuttling the amendment. Spokesman Mark Pudlow questions the state's research and says the opposition to the law is nothing new. What is new, he says, is the "hook" — the economy argument.

"I think some longtime opponents are seizing on this and trying put a dagger in the heart of the measure," he says. When asked about districts like Hillsborough expressing support for the Weatherford measure, he says, "Districts have always had problems with it because they never thought the state would come up with the money, and they were right. Florida stopped growing. Getting to this level is going to cost a significant amount, but this is something the voters put in the constitution."

Small-class-size supporter Damian Filer, who now serves as the political director for the left-of-center action group Progress Florida, says that opponents of the measure have spent the past eight years trying "to undercut and circumvent and wiggle out of this constitutional requirement. They've failed and now they're hitting the panic button."

But Will Weatherford says that the new crop of legislators like himself are simply trying to be responsible in realizing that full implementation of the class-size amendment is "almost impossible" for local school districts to adhere to.

MaryEllen Elia agrees. The Hillsborough School Board superintendent told the audience at the Children's Board meeting that she hopes to gather as much support as possible to support Weatherford's legislation. "This is an important issue that people have not seen the problems yet, but they will come," she warned.

And if recent history is any indication, Floridians have shown that they're willing to reverse their own votes. Remember the high-speed rail repeal in 2004?

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