There is a silver lining to last week's defeat of the Amendment 8, the Legislature's attempt to relax class-size requirements. The majority of voters support changing the rules, even if the vote count fell short of the 60 percent needed for passage. That provides all the political cover legislative leaders need to embrace a simpler and less controversial solution that they have resisted for years.
Voters, frustrated with Tallahassee's lack of commitment to public schools, approved the 2002 class-size amendment. But it's been an ill-conceived solution from the start as it elevates class size above all other education funding priorities and treats all public school classrooms the same, regardless of students' needs.
The final stage of the measure, implemented this fall, has created extraordinary disruption in the state's schools, with teachers and students shuffled between classes in an effort to ensure on any given day that there are no more than 18 students in each kindergarten through third-grade class; 22 in fourth through eighth; and 25 in ninth through 12th.
The Republican-led Legislature has contended it can't relax the implementation in any way because of the potential for lawsuits. Amending the state Constitution would have been a cleaner solution, but that avenue is closed for the time being. Another solution is available.
Many lawmakers and education leaders — including those representing the teachers union, an ardent supporter of the class-size amendment — have long argued the Legislature has discretion to adopt less rigid implementing language by law. And they even note the Legislature already has exercised that discretion by exempting charter schools from the class-size standards even though they are financed by public dollars.
A proposal approved by the House in 2008 but never heard by the full Senate would have required schools to met the per-classroom cap at the beginning of each year. But it would have given the school boards discretion to increase enrollments in individual classes by three to five students, depending on the grade, if needed during the year.
That fix falls short of the reasonable solution Republican leaders wanted: Amendment 8 would have set the definition for class size caps at schoolwide averages. That also would have relieved the Legislature of some financial burden for funding the class-size requirements, ideally freeing up resources for other priorities such as merit teacher pay.
But Amendment 8 failed to garner 60 percent of the vote — the higher standard for constitutional amendments that voters approved in 2006 at the Legislature's request. Now it's time to move to Plan B and change the implementation law. Providing school districts flexibility remains a necessity, even if it's not the ideal solution.