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A weekend interview with state Sen. Alex Villalobos



alex_villalobos.jpgOver the years since voters approved Florida's class size amendment, a group of Republican lawmakers consistently has tried to get the mandate overturned. State Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, steadfastly has stood against the effort. Now he's joined forces with the Florida Education Association to campaign against the latest effort to scale back the 2002 amendment. Villalobos spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his views shortly after launching the Vote No on 8 campaign. United Teachers of Dade president Karen Aronowitz and FEA lawyer Ron Meyer also joined the conversation at the end.

You've launched the vote no on Amendment 8 campaign. I'm interested in knowing first off why you're starting this campaign now? We're still before the primary and the vote is off for a few months.

It is our goal to educate the people as to what exactly this amendment is about. As you know back in 2002 the people of Florida were sick and tired of the way the Legislature funded education and they did a petition drive and collected signatures to place the issue on the ballot. It was subsequently adopted and it is part of the Constitution. It is section IX, I believe, of the Constitution. And it does two things. Number one, it requires less kids in the classrooms. Why do that? If your child is in a classroom, do you think 40 kids in a class is going to be easier than 18? That's number one. But number two, it's also an issue about money and whether or not the Legislature, the state of Florida, is going to pay its fair share.

Now, the reason that this is important right now is in 2005, then-governor Bush tried to do another amendment through the Legislature ... that was defeated by one vote. I was one of those no votes, to undo what the people had voted for. I told him -- he got very upset at me -- but I told him, look, the people of Florida want to do that and our job is to govern by way of consent of the people. It's not the other way around. He didn't like that too much, and he financed a candidate against me who raised $8 million to take me out. But that didn't work too well back in his own district. And now they're trying to do it again. In 2010 the Legislature will have to start paying for smaller class sizes.

Look, this isn't my opinion vs. your opinion, or what the UTD or the FEA has to say. The Florida Supreme Court in 2002 in their advisory opinion  ... says, and I quote on page 584, 'Although, as a result of the amendment, the Legislature may choose to fund the building of new schools to achieve the maximum classroom size set as a goal of the proposed amendment, this is not the only method of ensure that the number of students meets the numbers set forth in the amendment." Which means if there's one extra child, if instead of 18 you have 19, that doesn't mean you're going to have to shut down the school. This is only a goal.

I'll further read: 'Rather than restricting the Legislature, the proposed amendment gives the Legislature latitude in designing ways to reach the class size goal articulated in the ballot initiative, and places the obligation to ensure compliance on the Legislature, not the local school boards.'

Okay. Well, you're in the Legislature. So how can this happen? Everybody talks about there not being enough money and that there are too many problems in trying to meet this goal. You're in the majority, but you're also fighting this. How do you make this reality without changing the amendment?

Well, I voted against this amendment when it was up. I just stood up and said it was wrong. The reality is, look, we have a $60 billion budget, and this is all about priorities. If you think funding the Game and Fish Commission is more important than funding education, that's fine. That's why you live in America. But I don't think that. And that's why I was against and I've always voted consistently against trying to change it. I think our obligation as a Legislature is to do what the people of Florida told us to do. Not us tell them that they were wrong and us tell them what to do. So, the money is there. Are they going to have trouble meeting this? No. All they have to do is pay for this first and pay for everything else second.

So what do you tell people who are looking for services other than education if their things start getting cut and they fight this?

It's true. Listen, everything is a competition. Everything is. Is this going to put other programs at risk? Let me tell you something. The Constitution is supreme to statutes. So the people of Florida said that this goes first, not second. So are other programs maybe not going to have enough money? Yes. But that's why everything that I do is a matter of priorities. And if I think, as I said, that the Game and Fish Commission is more important than education, then I should vote that way. But I don't. What I am trying to do is inform the public as to what this is. And look, if the public doesn't want to pay for education first, then they can vote for Amendment 8. It's their choice. If they want to pay for health care programs first, it's their choice. My choice is, I want to pay for education first.

What do you do with the others in the Legislature who are not willing to raise taxes or pay for education first in the way that you're talking about it? Because that's where the money has to come from, right?

You're right. But you don't have to raise taxes to do that. This is built into the existing budget. What you have to do is tell other programs No, and tell this program Yes. But every program costs money. Do you have to raise taxes to do this? No. We haven't raised taxes to do this. And we've already funded $16 billion since this amendment took place. And we haven't raised taxes. We've prioritized correctly. That's what my argument is to continue doing.

So, what is so bad about the amendment as it is written? Because the way the representatives and senators who supported it pushed it, they said it's simply right-sizing it, adding a couple of more kids per class. Not going anywhere near 40 or 50 like it used to be. Is it just because it's deviating from the original amendment? Or is there something else bad about it?

No. It's because it is deviating from the original amendment. And if the argument is we're just adding two or three more kids, well then why don't you add two or three more? Or two or three more on top of that? You know, you have to draw the line somewhere. And I think the line was drawn when the people voted for it in 2002. Now the Legislature is saying, You voted wrong. Because that is what the Legislature is saying. ...

What about the issue that school districts are raising about the flexibility of having a few more students as they come and go throughout the school year? They move in and out.

You're right. And that's why I read to you what the Supreme Court said. Because listen, I could tell you anything I want. So could the FEA or the teachers union or some of the school districts or whatever. However, the Supreme Court clearly stated that these are goals. These are not fast caps. What that means is, if the cap is 18, and there's an additional kid -- and this is what the school districts will tell you -- well if there's one more kid and there's 19 kids, what are you supposed to do? Shut down the school? No. They're supposed to work toward a goal that has 18 kids and have a plan to work toward this. So if you have 19 kids, you can do that. And the Florida Supreme Court says so. Not the Legislature. The Supreme Court said so. So it's just not true when somebody tells you it's a hard cap. It is not. But the proponents of Amendment 8 will tell you, All we're doing is adding more kids. Yeah. That's exactly what they're doing. They're adding more kids. And I don't think we should add more kids.

So how does this campaign come down now? What do you have to do to convince people from all the way down in South Florida to the Panhandle that your position is the right one?

This, what I am doing with you. I am not only giving you my opinion, but I am reading from the Supreme Court opinion that says what the law is in the state of Florida. I am trying to educate people. I just want people to make informed decisions. Okay. And look, ... if your choice is you don't mind having more kids in a school, man, I don't disagree with you. That's your opinion and I respect your opinion. But mine is that we should have less. And that's all I want to do. I want to educate people and let them know exactly what the law is, so that when a district says, This is going to penalize us, no it is not. Because the Supreme Court of Florida, which is the rule of law, says that this is a goal and that the Legislature is going to have to pay for it. That is all I want to do. ...

How do you get this word out?

All I can do is my best. I am going to travel the state and go to all the editorial boards and show them. I encourage you, not because I said so. Look up this opinion from the Supreme Court and read it. ... How am I going to do it? I am going to travel as much as I can and tell as many people as I can and talk to as many people like you as I can.

(United Teachers of Dade president Karen Aronowitz and Florida Education Association lawyer Ron Meyer, were listening on the call. We asked them for their input, too.)

I don't know if either of you have anything you'd like to add. Because I'd sure like to hear your views on these questions we've been discussing.

Aronowitz: I would like to talk about it as a parent and as a teacher, of course. We want to provide the best education for kids. In fact, private schools and charter schools brag about their class sizes. And we're continually having to fight to have this voted-upon decision of the people of Florida implemented. The idea of the threat that if one child crosses the threshhold of a classroom there is going to be Armageddon, that's wrong.

The thing is, the Legislature is threatening districts, but in truth, if there is an extra child that comes in, you wait. There could be a period of time where we see what the averages are in other classes. Occassionally you readjust the classes. But the threat of one child coming into the class and suddenly the district has to pay a fine, that is a threat from the Legislature. That is not an attempt to meet the class size. And that is what they are really doing. They are threatening folks. ... There are ways that we can meet this and that we can address the children that come in that are above the cap. But to willingly say we are not going to even attempt to meet that cap, that is deceptive.

I have heard from a lot of the districts that that is the biggest concern that they have, that they can't control the students as they come in and out. And they're afraid that a parent might say, Hey, there are supposed to be 18 in this class and there are 22, and therefore I am suing you

Meyer: If there is going to be a lawsuit, the lawsuit needs to be aimed not at the school district but at the Florida Legislature and the state of Florida. Because the constitution very clearly makes it the obligation of the state to make adequate provision to fund public education so it can meet the target goals. As Sen. Villalobos said, these are not hard caps, these are goals.

What the Legislature has done this year is truly remarkable in that they haven't paid the money that the Department of Education and State Board of Education said was required using their numbers -- $353 million was required to make this transition into classroom compliance -- and yet they're threatening school districts with substantial penalties if they don't comply. They're starving them and then they're complaining because their stomachs are grumbling. That's just wrong.

The other issue that's important ... is that the public needs to know that Amendment 8, notwithstanding the confusing ballot summary language that has been added to it, has two effects. One effect is that it permits class sizes to get larger. And the other effect is it undoes the funding requirement that's presently in the Constitution. Keep in mind Article IX begins with, "It shall be the paramount duty of the state of Florida to adequately fund public education." If it's a paramount duty, it comes first. If there's a dissatisfied parent because the 19th student or the 20th student shows up, they need to take their dissatisfaction where it belongs. And that is to the state of Florida.

And by the way, let me just say this. If Amendment 8 passes and instead of 18 students being the goal it becomes 21 students, what happens when the 22nd student shows up? It's the same problem only with more kids in the classrooms. So, we don't believe that the Constitution creates hard caps. We don't believe that because the Supreme Court said it didn't create hard caps. It created goals. And it's all about funding. The people said we want to fund public education. We shouldn't go back on what the people directed.

So why do you think school districts are rushing so hard to get to that goal, then rather than saying, The Legislature didn't give us the money and therefore we're going to do our best but we can't make any promises?

Meyer: I think you're going to have to ask the school districts that. I for the life of me can't understand why the public school districts of this state and the public school superintendents of this state would agree to an amendment that will cede from the funding commitment that the constitution currently provides. If they believe that by simply giving up on class size they're going to get the money in other accounts, I think they're badly mistaken. The only reason $16 billion has been pumped into public education since 2002 in the class size category is because the Constitution requires it. You take that constitutional provision away, and that money is going away, too. And why a school district would turn down the money is beyond my understanding.

[Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 10:21am]


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