TALLAHASSEE — A Republican-led push to loosen the state's class-size mandate moved closer to a 2010 ballot measure with House approval Friday.
Sponsor Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the state needs to give districts flexibility because the final step of the class-size amendment approved by voters in 2002 "is cumbersome, it is inflexible, it is too expensive, and it is ridiculous."
Three Democrats joined the yea camp in a 78-41 vote to ask Floridians to halt class-size compliance at the current schoolwide average, while raising the maximum number of students allowed per classroom. They are Reps. Leonard Bembry, D-Madison; Debbie Boyd, D-High Springs; and Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
A proposed constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote in both chambers before it can be put to voters, where approval requires 60 percent of the votes. The Senate's version is due to be heard in committee Monday, and the pre-K-12 appropriations chairman, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he expects it to pass.
In the past six years, more than $13 billion has gone toward reducing class sizes, with another $8 billion forecast for the final phase, which holds classrooms to a maximum number of students by the beginning of the 2010 school year.
The 45-minute debate before Friday's vote was the second time this week that the House had taken up the measure, which has huge support from school boards, superintendents and administrators, but lacks backing by the teachers union.
Democrat after Democrat argued that the proposed change threatens school funding, threatens learning gains and defies the will of voters who put the class-size issue into the state Constitution.
"Let's be honest," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. "This isn't just about flexibility; it's about funding."
Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, has fought the legislation through its every stop in the House, offering amendments that he says would ensure that the flexibility sought by school districts comes with the assurance of continued funding and small classes.
Kiar said he would have been more supportive of letting voters decide whether they really meant to support class size "if the ballot language actually stated that this will most likely delete much of the funding for class size, that this will increase class sizes from where they currently are."