A weekend interview about class size with Ron Meyer
With the rejection of Amendment 8, the discussions over implementation of Florida's class size requirements are likely to continue. Leaders on both sides of the debate say some common sense needs to be injected into the rules. And one of the key players will be Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who represents the Florida Education Association and the Florida Association of School Boards on class size. As state Sen. Steve Wise, chairman of the Education Appropriations Committee noted, Meyer "is bright and he usually wins. I think we need to sit down with him and say, 'We've got a problem and you guys know it. How do we fix it?'"
Meyer spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the aftermath of Amendment 8. Here are some of the highlights of Meyer's remarks. (Sorry it's not in Q&A format, but the recorder wasn't running.)
Meyer said he was pleased to hear that some top GOP lawmakers are wanting to hear his interpretation of the class size amendment and laws, which he stressed are not the same thing.
"There are a couple of things that need to happen sooner rather than later," he said. "The Legislature needs to amend the provision of law which imposes the penalties. The reason for the failure (to comply with the rules) is the failure of the Legislature to provide adequate funding to meet this goal. We have to work together to figure out how school districts can be spared the penalties the Legislature has imposed."
He noted that the Department of Education can exercise some latitude in assessing the fines, but it can't eliminate them without a change in law.
"The Legislature needs to take its foot off the neck of the local school districts," Meyer said. If no action comes, districts and the FSBA are "fully prepared to go forward and challenge the imposition of penalties."
Next, the stakeholders need to collaborate to find flexibility in the class size system, he continued.
"There are ways legislatively to achieve flexibility," Meyer said.
He suggested that there likely isn't a court in Florida that will force a school district to split a class in two and hire new teachers simply because a 19th child arrives in a third grade classroom. The Legislature is supposed to fund a program to get class sizes to 18 (K-3), 22 (4-8) and 25 (9-12), and school districts are supposed to make it work once funded.
"But the hard cap is in law" and not the constitution, Meyer insisted. "The constitution set a goal. ... It is the right of local school boards in the exercise of their constitutional right to operate and supervise local schools to have the ability to achieve that goal in a way that makes sense."
He suggested that a 2008 bill sponsored by Rep. David Simmons, newly elected to the Senate, would be a good starting point. That bill would have given schools some wiggle room in meeting the class size requirements annually while still requiring them to make every effort to comply with the class-by-class counts each fall.
"We all recognized there are unanticipated population shifts, and when that does happen there needs to be a way to deal with that in a way that doesn't hurt children," Meyer said. "We need to let school districts make judgments while still striving to achieve the goal and holding the Legislature responsible for funding."
Even with full funding and full compliance on a set day, he said, "there are going to be times when children come unexpectedly. We're going to have to deal with that."
Otherwise, Meyer said, lawsuits are likely, perhaps by teachers and perhaps by parents unhappy with classes that don't meet the strict requirements.
"As a parent, I suppose I would want to come to the school board and say, 'You can't do that,'" Meyer said. "The school board would say, 'We didn't get the money from the Legislature to pay for smaller classes.' Could I win a lawsuit like that? I don't know."
He said he was hopeful that everyone would sit together and find ways to do what's in the best interests for students, teachers and schools, avoiding lawsuits which would waste scarce school resources: "I believe governor-elect Scott and the newly elected members of the Legislature, while we may differ on how we reach these goals, I don't think anyone is saying, 'Let's make our schools crummy.'"