The Florida Education Association on Friday filed suit in Tallahassee to stop the Florida Legislature from placing a constitutional amendment referendum on class size onto the November ballot.
The teachers union contends that the Legislature failed to disclose the true purpose of Amendment 8, which lawmakers have called the "right sizing" of a 2002 constitutional amendment passed by voters to lower class size.
"It does to some extent tell the voter that we're going to allow classes to get bigger," said Ron Meyer, the Tallahassee attorney for the union. "But it never says we're going to let the Legislature back off the funding commitment."
The original amendment states that "the Legislature shall make adequate provision to ensure that, by the beginning of the 2010 school year, there are a sufficient number of classrooms" to meet the class size mandate. FEA president Andy Ford said in a news release that the Legislature failed that duty by not providing the $354 million districts need to comply with the final phase of the law this year.
Amendment 8, Meyer suggested, is simply a way for the Legislature to wriggle out from its constitutional obligation. But because that's unstated, he argued, the amendment fails to meet the legal requirements for going onto the ballot.
"We think that's the Achilles heel of this particular amendment," Meyer said. "It's too deceptive to be voted on."
State Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican who sponsored the amendment in the Legislature, countered that he believed the amendment is "very honest" in its goal.
"We're trying to protect the integrity of small class sizes in the state of Florida," he said. "At the same time, we're providing flexibility for the thousands of principals and administrators and school board members and superintendents and, frankly, the hundreds of parents … whose children are not able to go to the school they want because of the class size restraints."
The state has spent $18 billion since 2004 to implement the class size requirements, Weatherford continued, and class sizes have decreased. He called that "good and important."
The time has come, though, to start spending the money in the classrooms and not on building classrooms, he said, suggesting that Amendment 8 would allow that to happen.
With this lawsuit now filed, Meyer next turns his attention to a second class size-related suit against the Legislature. That one will focus on the penalties that lawmakers decided to impose on school districts that fail to meet the final stage of the amendment this fall.
Several school districts, including Palm Beach and Broward, have joined that pending effort, which is expected to be filed in September. That lawsuit will contend that the Legislature "starved the school boards" of the ability to pay for class size reduction and then turned around and threatened huge fines for that failure, Meyer said.
Again, he said, the issue comes back to the language of the 2002 amendment that places the funding burden for shrinking class sizes on the state, and not the local districts, he said.
"It's all about the money," Meyer said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.