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Voters may get chance to give school districts flexibility on class-size rules

Florida voters soon could get their chance to reconsider the 2002 class-size amendment.

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State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, filed a bill Tuesday to place the issue back on the ballot. State Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, followed suit Wednesday.

Their nearly identical proposals would halt the state's class-size reduction effort at the school average, allowing individual classrooms to exceed the average by three at the elementary level and four at the middle school level.

Without a change, schools would be required to start counting students in every core-curriculum classroom for the 2010-11 academic year. The class-size limits are 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in Grades 4-8 and 25 in high school.

Both lawmakers said the effort is aimed at making it easier and less expensive for school districts to meet the mandate.

"It gives us a little more flexibility to manage the thing," Wise said. "It's still class-size reduction."

The proposal mirrors what school boards and superintendents have requested, Weatherford noted. District leaders have raised concerns about what to do with the "19th student" who arrives in a classroom that's capped at 18.

They also have worried about the cost of building classrooms and hiring teachers to meet the mandate.

Weatherford suggested that the cost of implementing the amendment, already at $13 billion, would lessen in coming years if the proposed changes are adopted. The vast majority of Florida schools already meet the amendment requirements as a school average.

Wise met late Tuesday with the education commissioner and leaders of several education organizations to talk about class size.

"Everybody there was supportive of (the pending resolution), all the organizations with the exception of the teachers union," he said. "Our job is to get them on board."

That could prove a tough sell.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said even before the bills were filed that he could not foresee a situation in which the union would support amending the class-size amendment, although the group has supported efforts through statute to make its provisions more flexible.

"We are still fully behind making sure that it is fully funded," Pudlow said.

Democrats and even some Republicans might throw up roadblocks, too, as they've insisted that the will of the voters has been clear for years.

But Weatherford contended that the change in the economy might provide the impetus to change peoples' minds.

"The voters wanted a bullet train, too, until they found out how much it cost," he said.

If the House and Senate approve the resolution, 60 percent of voters would have to agree. Polls have shown the amendment, which passed by a slim 52-48 percent margin seven years ago, is more popular now than before.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Voters may get chance to give school districts flexibility on class-size rules 02/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 11:07pm]
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