Class size bill clears Senate committee, heads to floor
Over the objections of some Democratic lawmakers and education advocates, the Senate's Ways and Means Committee just approved the proposed constitutional amendment to freeze class size counts at the schoolwide level, clearing the way for a floor vote soon.
Opposing: D's Dan Gelber, Tony Hill, Charlie Justice, Al Lawson, Nan Rich, Eleanor Sobel, Frederica Wilson and Ted Deutch. Dem Gary Siplin sided with Republicans, and R Alex Villalobos notably left before the vote.
Sponsor Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the amendment will not just save the state money but avoid "the kind of disruption and problems and disorganization that comes when you have hard caps."
SB2 would require class sizes mandated by the 2003 amendment be counted at the school level rather than the class level. Proponents point out that class sizes have gone down on average at all levels since 2003, and they say requiring compliance at the class by class level is impractical and disruptive to schools because it would force principals to make mid-year changes in teaching staffs, portables, etc.
"The state has spent $15 billion on class size already," Gaetz said. "The fact is, we have plenty of classrooms in the state today. The problem is, they're in the wrong place."
But FEA general counsel Ron Meyer, a savvy legal mind who was around in 2002, said all the Legislature needs is a statutory fix that sets the counts at school levels - as former House Rep. David Simmons tried but failed to do a couple of years ago.
Meyer said the amendment as proposed would actually allow larger classes than what the state now has.
"In 2002 we had on average in K-3 classes 22 kids. Today it's at 16. Under this amendment, you could go up to 21," he said. "So it's clearly a retreat on class size."
Moreover, he said the Florida Supreme Court has interpreted the 2003 class size amendment as "goals."
He said the language doesn't set hard class caps; it obligates the Legislature to provide funds so that classrooms "can meet the goals."
The amendment will not face an easy road if it clears the Legislature; amendments now need 60 percent of voter approval to become part of the Constitution. When the 2003 class size amendment passed, it did so only by 52 percent. And already, school principals are planning teacher staffing and classroom schedules to deal with the original class size amendment which will start calculating at class-by-class levels come fall.
"Why don't we pass the statutory fix this year rather than wait to see if the amendment passes?" said Sen. Dan Gelber.
"I am going to do everything I can to make sure this does not pass," echoed Sen. Wilson. "And when it doesn't pass, we are going to have a real problem and we need to come up with some real solutions to mitigate this."