TALLAHASSEE — A longtime push to scale back the 2002 class-size amendment scored its biggest victory yet Thursday as the Republican-led Florida House agreed to put the question to voters this fall.
After fewer than 45 minutes of debate, House members voted 77-41 in favor of a constitutional amendment approved last month in the Senate. The three-fifths vote by both chambers gets the measure on the ballot in November and reopens a passionate campaign that has long pitted public school teachers and parents against school administrators and Republican lawmakers who say current class-size limits are impossible to fund.
"If we don't create flexibility, we will have rezoning. We will have busing all over the state of Florida," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the House bill.
Opponents say Republican leaders simply want to lessen the state's constitutional responsibility to fund smaller class sizes.
"Class size does matter," said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg. "It makes a difference to students and those who teach them."
The constitution currently limits class sizes to 18 students in grades pre-kindergarten through third, 22 students in fourth through eighth and 25 students in high school. Superintendents have been allowed to meet those caps first by district and now by school averages, but the constitution requires a shift toward hard classroom counts starting in July.
The proposed amendment would forgo hard caps in favor of maintaining school averages and would increase the maximum class size limit by three students in pre-kindergarten through third, and by five in other grades.
But the measure does little to alleviate the immediate strain on school districts, who are already scrambling to project student enrollments and hire sufficient teachers to comply with the constitutional limits in the new school year.
Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who supports the constitutional change, said school districts have been advised to continue scaling down class sizes despite the looming ballot battle.
The state's largest teachers union opposes the amendment.
"We don't believe it's necessary," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. "They just don't want to pay for schools."
Since 2003, the state has spent nearly $16 billion to implement the class-size amendment, most of that toward hiring 30,000 new teachers.
As of last fall, 33 percent of pre-kindergarten classes did not meet the hard class-size caps. At the middle school and high school levels, respectively, 30 percent and 38 percent of classes were out of compliance, according to the Department of Education. Overall, not one of the state's 75 school districts had met the hard class-size counts. Bridging that gap would cost an additional $350 million, according to the DOE.
School administrators and school board members overwhelmingly favor the constitutional amendment, but not because they want larger classrooms. They say they have no choice but to rally behind the new amendment because Tallahassee hasn't given them the dollars to meet the hard caps.
Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Janet Clark said she wishes she could reduce class sizes to 12 students or fewer. More than 33 percent of pre-kindergarten through third-grade classes in Pinellas had more than 18 students this fall.
But Clark said she will likely spend the next few months campaigning for the constitutional amendment because it will help school districts meet the class-size requirement despite years of underfunding.
"The voters of Florida decided class size was the way to go to get fewer children in front of an individual and it's a great idea," she said. "But the state of Florida is not willing to put money toward education."
Pasco County superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she will need to hire 250 new teachers next year at a cost of $13 million to comply with the 2002 requirement. At the same time, she expects her budget to decline by at least $26 million because of dropping property values and reduced funding from Tallahassee.
To balance her deficit, she is considering eliminating all middle school athletic teams and drivers education and junior varsity sports at the high school level. Teachers also might have to take furloughs on planning days, she said.
Voters approved small class sizes amid tales of overcrowded classrooms and overwhelmed teachers with 52 percent of the vote in 2002 despite warnings from Republican leaders and administrators that the constitutional amendment would ultimately drain state coffers.
Republican lawmakers have angled to water down or repeal the costly measure ever since. Last year, the Legislature approved a temporary "fix," freezing full implementation until fall 2010 and keeping counts at the school-wide level.
Persuading parents to vote for larger classrooms could be difficult.
Roughly 50 percent of voters want to weaken the state's class-size amendment, according to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of 625 registered Florida voters last month. Constitutional amendments need 60 percent support to pass.
Colleen Wood, the mother of 11-year-old and 8-year-old public school students, said smaller classes give children individualized attention.
"If we believed that there was just no money and they had done everything they could … I think you would have parents who would support it," said Wood, founder of 50th No More, a parent group based in St. Johns County that advocates for more school funding.
"But there is such a lack of trust between parents and citizens of the state and Tallahassee. There is a fear that once this goes through they will cut us even more."
Cristina Silva can be reached at [email protected]