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Teachers union takes case for upholding class size limits to state Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — In arguments before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, the state's largest teachers union challenged a proposal to ease Florida's minimum class size requirements.

The Florida Education Association maintains that the summary for the November ballot doesn't fully explain Amendment 8's effect. But the legal challenge faced stiff resistance. Last month a trial judge ruled that the state's ballot summary is fair and accurate. And on Wednesday several justices appeared skeptical of the union's argument.

Even if the FEA loses its legal fight, union officials say they still feel confident about public opinion on the measure. A Sept. 20-22 survey by the Mason-Dixon polling firm shows only 35 percent of likely voters support the amendment loosening the class limits, far from the 60 percent required to add it to the Constitution.

"We think this amendment is flawed, it shouldn't be put out for a vote," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the FEA. "But if people get a chance to vote for it, I think that the public knows that smaller classes are a good thing."

Passed by the Legislature this spring, Amendment 8 would tweak the 2002 constitutional amendment that imposed maximum class sizes of 18 students in kindergarten to third grade, 22 students in Grades 4 to 8, and 25 students for high school.

The proposal would calculate those caps at a schoolwide average, and individual classes could exceed the average by a handful of students. The changes could save the state between $350 million and $1 billion, but the union argues that the ballot summary doesn't mention those savings.

A Tallahassee circuit judge ruled in September that the ballot summary "clearly and unambiguously" explains the proposal's effect. And Meyer faced intense questioning from several Supreme Court justices during oral arguments.

"If you allow larger classrooms, then you're also saying that you're going to allow the Legislature to escape the funding obligation that's present in the state of Florida's constitution," Meyer argued.

Said Justice Barbara Pariente: "My humble question to you is: Isn't that obvious?"

In August, Pariente joined a 5-2 majority that struck down two other high-profile ballot initiatives passed by the Legislature.

The justices did not issue a ruling Wednesday, though the case has been expedited and a ruling is expected over the next few weeks. If the court does rule against the proposal, it would not remove it from the ballot because many absentee ballots have already been printed. In that case, any votes for the amendment would not be officially tallied.

Supporters of the amendment note that the state has spent more than $18 billion to implement smaller class sizes, mostly building new classrooms and hiring new teachers.

The measure's savings "could go to teacher salary increases to get better outcomes from our students in education rather than putting it into more buildings that we don't presently need," said David Hart, a vice president with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supports the proposal.

But Sen. Alex Villalobos, a moderate Republican from Miami who is leading the effort to defeat the amendment, argues there is no guarantee lawmakers will use the proposal's savings for other education needs.

"They don't want to do that," he said. "They could always do that, but if you didn't have that funding requirement, believe me, they wouldn't. I mean, I'm in the Legislature, I hear it every day."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Teachers union takes case for upholding class size limits to state Supreme Court 10/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 8:48pm]
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