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State high court will hear debate over class size and so will most voters

Classroom by classroom, Florida public school districts continue the march to reduce the number of students and finally meet the mandate voters approved eight years ago.

Their deadline: Oct. 15, when the fall student counts take place.

But first, the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on Amendment 8, a ballot measure that would ask voters to reconsider the caps set by the 2002 class-size amendment.

The state's teachers union is challenging the language in Amendment 8, calling it misleading and unclear. Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, says it also fails to tell voters that it could potentially change the way public education is funded.

Nonsense, says state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who co-sponsored Amendment 8. "There is no plan to take any resources from education," he said.

After voters approved the class-size amendment in 2002, lawmakers created a plan to phase in class-size limits and have pumped $19 billion into the initiative.

Many complained that the amendment forced the state to put too much money into classroom construction rather than instruction. Repeated proposals to change things failed, though.

Only this year, with full compliance looming and school leaders complaining, did the Republican-dominated House and Senate reach consensus and put Amendment 8 on the ballot.

Initially slow to form, the "Vote No on 8" and "Yes on 8" campaigns have begun to gain steam.

"Most parents have focused on their kids in school," said Ingrid Olsen, campaign coordinator for Vote No on 8. "As we move closer to the election, more people will be paying attention."

Speakers for each side have started making the rounds to pitch their views to newspaper editorial boards and launched websites and Facebook pages.

"I can promise you that the word will get out," Weatherford said.

Focusing the message is key for the Yes on 8 side, which faces an uphill battle with recent polls showing support for changes hovering below 40 percent. To pass, a constitutional amendment requires 60 percent voter approval.

Charter Schools USA and the Florida Chamber of Commerce each have given $25,000 to Protect Our Constitution, a political action committee that is running Yes on 8. The group spent $25,000 in late August to secure the services of Ron Sachs Communications, a Tallahassee firm that has coordinated other constitutional amendment campaigns in the past.

"Our campaign is going to make use of every hour, every day, until Election Day," said Sachs.

Vote No on 8 has received $200,000 from the Public Education Defense Fund, a committee aligned with the teachers unions.

But representatives from both sides suggested that the real campaigning will rely heavily on people talking to people.

"Every county has a superintendent, a school board member, principals, parents and students affected," Weatherford said. "You have a grass roots network that didn't have to be created. It's already there."

The Legislature seeded the ground for this, requiring all school boards to make public presentations this fall about how they would implement the class-size amendment if unchanged. Across Florida, the reports focused largely on the expense of adding teachers and classrooms, the difficulty of shuffling schedules and other hardships that districts said they expect to face without more flexibility to deal with the extra students who arrive.

Many supporters of the original amendment accused lawmakers of requiring the presentations to scare voters in the weeks leading to the election.

Olsen said teachers and parents will combat these stories by getting the word out that small classes make a positive difference for their children.

Count Fund Education Now among them. Co-founder Linda Kobert said the Orlando-based parent network understands the need for flexibility in scheduling children's classes, but it worries that the money associated with reducing class sizes will vanish if the requirements are lessened.

Kobert noted that the Legislature did not fund the $350 million needed to meet the final stage of the amendment, even as it imposed hefty penalties for failing to comply.

"If the people could trust the Legislature … to adequately fund public schools, then I think we wouldn't be so afraid to let them tinker with class size," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

FAST FACTS

The court case

The case of Florida Education Association vs. Florida Department of State heads to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday. The union seeks to have Amendment 8 ballots discounted, so the results are never released. The state contends that the amendment is valid and should remain before voters.

Among the arguments:

Florida Education Association: "The ballot title of Amendment 8 is misleading in that it purports to be a revision of class-size requirements for public schools by permitting class sizes to be averaged at a schoolwide level rather than at a classroom level. However, the amendment in reality reduces the funding required to be provided by the state of Florida to local school districts to ensure smaller class sizes."

Department of State: "First, the appellants' funding reduction claim is pure speculation based on meaningless calculations that lack any record support. Second, the current language of the class-size amendment, by its own terms and in the view of this court, fixes no prescribed or funding rate, formula, or level that the Legislature must meet or that is threatened by Amendment 8. Third, the fiscal impact of a legislatively proposed amendment is not required in the ballot title and summary."

Sources: Briefs filed by both sides in the case of Florida Education Association et al. vs. Department of State

What's on ballot

Amendment 8 would ask Florida voters to reconsider the limits set forth in the 2002 class-size amendment, so schools would be allowed to exceed the individual classroom cap if their average class size remains at the 2002 approved level of 18 (Grades K-3), 22 (Grades 4-8) or 25 (Grades 9-12). The Florida Legislature has proposed these changes, with the support of the state associations of school boards, superintendents and school administrators. The Florida Education Association and the Florida PTA are opposing the effort. The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether voters should consider the question during oral arguments on Wednesday.

Here's the ballot title and summary:

Revision of the Class Size Requirements For Public Schools: The Florida Constitution currently limits the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in public school classrooms in the following grade groupings: for prekindergarten through Grade 3, 18 students; for Grades 4 through 8, 22 students; and for Grades 9 through 12, 25 students.

Under this amendment, the current limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in public school classrooms would become limits on the average number of students assigned per class to each teacher, by specified grade grouping, in each public school.

This amendment also adopts new limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in an individual classroom as follows: for prekindergarten through Grade 3, 21 students; for Grades 4 through 8, 27 students; and for Grades 9 through 12, 30 students.

This amendment specifies that class size limits do not apply to virtual classes, requires the Legislature to provide sufficient funds to maintain the average number of students required by this amendment, and schedules these revisions to take effect upon approval by the electors of this state and to operate retroactively to the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Source: Florida Division of Elections

State high court will hear debate over class size and so will most voters 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 10:40pm]

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