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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Florida Legislature: Nobody can get rich off smaller class sizes so we are going to get rid of it

From the Associated Press with an assist from the Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A new proposal to loosen Florida's class size caps sailed through a Senate committee on a unanimous vote without debate or objection Thursday, although the statewide teachers union later said it opposes the legislation.

The bill (SB 1466) filed by Sen. David Simmons would allow schools to exceed the limits by three to five students per class for core subjects to accommodate those who enroll after an annual count is taken each October. It also would redefine core classes to sharply reduce the number of courses covered by the limits.

As a representative, the Maitland Republican had introduced a similar bill that unanimously passed the House in 2008. Simmons' new version won approval from the Senate Education Pre-kindergarten-12 Committee.

The Senate had refused to consider his 2008 bill, insisting the limits adopted through a constitutional amendment in 2002 could only be altered by another amendment.

"We thought it was reasonable then. We think it's reasonable now," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "We have never thought that there needed to be a constitutional amendment."

The Legislature put an amendment on the ballot last November, though it fell short of the 60 percent needed to pass.

Opposition to the amendment included teachers unions, the Florida PTA and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Although no one objected to Simmons' bill in committee, Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the statewide union opposes the measure. The FEA had supported his 2008 legislation.

That's because it goes beyond just relaxing the student head count and reduces the number of core courses covered by class limits from 849 to 288. The courses that would be dropped are mostly foreign language, honors and advanced classes at the middle and high school levels, as well as those not required for graduation.

"We think lawmakers are doing an end around the voters," Pudlow said.

He said the union doesn't oppose more flexibility but objects to changes that appear designed only to save money.

Classes now are limited to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

The bill would let schools exceed those caps by three students in kindergarten through third grade and by five in the other grades, but only if they have plans for returning to full compliance by the following October head count.

Blanton said that he's certain the bill will pass the Republican-controlled Legislature and that it's been estimated to save school districts up to $70 million a year. It has one more committee stop before it can go to a floor vote in the Senate. No similar bill, though, has been filed in the House.

"It's a common sense approach," Blanton said. "In these tight economic times, $70 million is a lot of money in the public school systems."

As for a potential constitutional challenge, a Senate staff analysis notes the Florida Supreme Court has ruled in an advisory opinion that the 2002 amendment's main purpose is to require the Legislature to fund smaller classes while giving school districts operational flexibility.

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