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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview about Amendment 8 with state Rep. Will Weatherford



weatherford.jpgFlorida's class size amendment takes full effect this year, with hard caps for every core curriculum classroom. Many school leaders contend the rules are too inflexible and have urged change. Many teachers have argued the 2002 amendment keeps classrooms manageable and has provided one of the few new sources of money for schools that need it. State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sponsored a resolution in the Legislature this past spring that would let voters decide whether to keep the rules intact or to relax them. (See details here.) Weatherford spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the campaign.

I wanted to ask you about the class size campaign from a number of different aspect. But first off, where is this going? I even read a story saying there is no pro-Amendment 8 campaign.

Well, there is a pro-Amendment 8 campaign. We have Ron Sachs from Sachs Communication heading up the PR side of it. There's a fund raising effort that is taking place out there. A lot of people are engaged. We have a built-in grassroots network because we have school board members and superintendents and administrators and parents from all over the state of Florida that are actively engaged in getting this passed because they recognize the significant challenges it's causing in our education system.

Are you going to do a formal campaign? Or is it going to be more word of mouth?

Most of it is word of mouth, but there will be a formal campaign. And the truth is, from the polling I've seen in the past month, it's polling very favorably and we believe very strongly that it's going to pass. You wrote a lot of stories, and a lot of people recognized that the idea was a good one, that of keeping class sizes low. And I'm in favor of that. But having hard caps is a logistical nightmare for our superintendents and our school board members and our principals.

But on top of that, it's making us spend all our resources on that. And there are so many other things we could be spending our resources on, like teacher pay, and increasing teacher pay, or investing in technology in the classroom. And that's where we want our resources to go. We want to make sure we have small class sizes, but not to the point where there's hard caps, where you have no flexibility. It's all about flexibility and it's all about spending our money wisely. And it's going to be a full campaign and I have every belief in my heart that it's going to pass.

What about this effort to have it removed from the ballot? I know it failed at one level, but there's still this argument out there that it's not telling voters what you're actually trying to do, that you're trying to take money away from schools.

I think it's a misleading argument. I think the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court's decision. Because all we're saying to the voters is, Give us flexibility. But some people are trying to say it's going to take money out of education. It's not going to take any money out of education. In fact, what it's going to do is give us flexibility to spend money where it's needed, which is in higher teacher pay, technology in the classroom. So the question is, Do you want to spend your money building more classrooms? Or do you want to spend your money in the classroom

Not only that, some of the questions are about why aren't there enough teachers in the classrooms? You have to hire more teachers, and there hasn't been enough money for that to this point

That's right. Look. In a perfect world, if the economy was bursting and we had a gazillion dollars in reserves, this wouldn't be that big of an issue. But the truth is, we're not in that world right now. And we've got significant challenges that we've got to deal with. This is a way for us to take the limited resources that we have right now, invest them in the right areas and still make sure that we keep small classes. So it's a win-win for everybody. I worked for three years to get it on the ballot. Now I'm going to work hard to get it passed. ..

One of the stories I'm working on is looking at Sand Pine Elementary. ... They have six first-grade classrooms, they have 18 kids in each one of them. And this week a family moved in from out of state and they said, Hi. We're here to register our first-grade daughter. The school leaders are saying, What do we do know? They have one extra student.

Well, that is a perfect example of the lack of flexibility that we've got. That's insane that we would either have to hire another teacher to come to Sand Pine Elementary or send that child to another elementary school because we don't have room for them. There is something fundamentally flawed with that system. And that is what we are trying to fix.

Look, what people want out of government, fundamentally, I believe, is common sense. And that's just not common sense. We want a system that is going to allow us to spend our resources on things like teacher pay and technology, and currently it doesn't let us do that. So I think it's becoming what I call a kitchen table issue, where people sit around and say, Man this doesn't make sense. Why is it like this? And there is an opportunity for voters to fix it in November, and hopefully they will.

Do you see any merit to the arguments on the other side? Because there are a lot of people who say class size is awesome. Why would you want to take away all that money? They don't believe the Legislature will do anything besides raid the kitty.

Well, I can tell you, there is no data showing that it is making a big difference in the overall quality of our education system. There is data that shows in K-3 it does make a difference. But between fourth grade and 12th grade the data is overwhelming that it's not class size. It's the quality of the teacher, and it's the curriculum and all the other things that come into play. I'm not saying that class size doesn't matter at all. I think it does. But it's not something we should be taking all our resources and putting it into. There are so many other things we could be investing in as opposed to just class size. That's what I hope people understand as they go to the ballot box in November.

You said something about there being 67 committees, 67 separate efforts because it's something happening in each school district. How do you see that happening?

We're building grassroots in every county. In every county there are parents who are upset about this. In every county there are superintendents and teachers and administrators who are frustrated by this. In every county there is a music teacher, or a P.E. teacher, or an art teacher who is sitting there saying, 'Wait a minute. There are class size restrictions for their classes but not for mine. SO what they are doing is pushing a bunch of kids into my classroom to keep the other ones smaller.' That's not right either. There are so many reasons and so many people that are frustrated by this constitutional requirement that they're going to recognized that, hey, I've got to get out there and be active. And so we feel very strongly that we're going to have a good grassroots base in every county of the state.

[For an opposing view, see our recent interview with state Sen. Alex Villalobos.]

[Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 6:26am]


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