TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate voted to put class-size limits back on the ballot Thursday, while across the Capitol, security guards rushed to protect lawmakers from a hostile crowd after House Republicans rammed through a bill that would tie teacher pay to test scores.
It was a chaotic finish to three days of lengthy policy debate that saw the passage of a tide of controversial education bills that could dramatically transform Florida's public schools.
"In the past couple of days watching the session, we have watched them hurt our teachers, hurt our classrooms and it's going to continue," said Karin Brown, president of the Florida PTA, to a cheering rally of 2,000 parents, students and teachers gathered at the Capitol to decry the education measures and funding cuts.
Republican lawmakers praise the wide-ranging reform as a means of propelling struggling schools forward with limited budget dollars. The class-size legislation (SJR 2) would let voters consider a new constitutional amendment that would gauge whether class-size restrictions have been met by measuring a school's average, not by counting students in each classroom.
In a 2002 ballot measure, voters said they wanted hard class counts starting in the new school year.
The state has spent $16 billion implementing the amendment, with most of that going toward operational costs, such as teacher salaries. Another $350 million is needed to continue to downsize classes this fall, according to the Department of Education.
"We looked in the basement of the Old Capitol for the Confederate gold, and there wasn't any," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who sponsored the legislation.
The proposed amendment has been embraced by superintendents, who argue hard class counts would cost too much and create problems with student enrollment.
But critics said the Legislature's reluctance to sufficiently fund small classes has caused many of the challenges cited by school districts grappling to meet the constitutional standards. They say parents have made it clear that they will not vote for larger classes.
"You better have a Plan B, because this is not going to pass," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.
Sen. J. Alex Villalobos of Miami, the lone Republican to vote against the measure, gave a lecture on budget priorities prior to the 26-12 vote.
"We come up here and we pontificate all the time and it is almost like we know better than everyone else, and we don't," he said to an unusually quiet Senate floor.
Funding smaller classes during lean years is worth the fiscal headache, he said.
"I really believe that we have no higher calling than to try to help our kids, and if that's tough, well, that's what you got elected to do, to come up here and do the tough thing," he said.
Emotional debate also unfolded in the House PreK-12 Policy Committee on Thursday, where the meeting ended with sergeants at arms forming a barrier at the front of the committee room to protect lawmakers from an angry room full with educators.
Majority leaders forced the 9-6 vote on the tenure bill by cutting off debate, ignoring amendments and further public testimony. The Senate had passed a similar measure only a day before. It makes it easier to fire teachers, limiting them to one-year contracts, and ties their pay increase to student test scores.
"Here we go," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami. "Here's the process. Here's the dog and pony show."
John Legg, chairman of the House PreK-12 Policy Committee, said ineffective teachers are too often paid more than successful educators because of tenure.
"This is about the students of the state of Florida, to give them the opportunity to have a teacher that is qualified, that is going to meet the needs of those students," he said.
The House also advanced another hotly contested education bill Thursday. The House Finance and Tax Council passed a bill (CSHB 1009) that would divert more money to private schools through tax credit scholarships. The Senate green-lighted a similar bill Wednesday.
House Democrats bemoaned Republicans' unwillingness to compromise. The education measures are supported by Republican Party chairman Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Because of the fact that we are in a bad budget, the Republicans are trying to do all kinds of diversionary tactics," said House Minority Leader Franklin Sands.
Students and parents who gathered for an annual PTA rally lambasted the education legislation.
"We are trying to stop the cutting back," said Javier Figueroa, 29, whose two young children attend Trinity Charter School for Children in Tampa. "Somebody in there is going to say, 'Wow, a lot of people came out here to make a difference. Education needs to be funded.' "
Pinellas County School Board chairwoman Janet Clark said she was disheartened that the Republican-led Legislature did not seem to pay much heed to the rallying public.
"It's all part of Jeb's larger agenda," she said. "It's still being pushed."
Times/Herald staff writers John Frank and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.