Religion, class size stir up school bill
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- A joint House and Senate committee signed off on a massive review of Florida's education laws Thursday night, but not before a last-minute debate over students' religious freedom nearly derailed final negotiations.
The committee approved the bill 9-4 along party lines, and a final vote by the House and Senate is scheduled for today, the final day of the special legislative session.
The argument began when several senators objected to language in the 1,800-page bill that outlined previous court decisions on acceptable religious activities in schools.
Supporters of the provision say it simply gives school board attorneys guidance, but opponents called it a massive expansion of religious activity in schools.
"This creates the possibility of dozens and dozens and hundreds of lawsuits," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach.
"It sets a new floor on the types of religious activity that will go on in schools. Not a ceiling, a floor," Klein said.
Klein and other Jewish senators opposed to the measure, who had to wait until sundown on Thursday, the last day of Passover, to consult their religious scholars, say the measure was too important to tuck into the giant education code update.
Sen. Don Sullivan agreed the issue was important and said he voted for it only "under protest" because the Legislature was running out of time to pass the bill.
"I feel for years that religion has been discriminated against," said Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, defending the provision in principle.
"(But) it does not belong in the school code," Sullivan said, adding he wished it had been debated on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers negotiated back and forth until they got to the final four issues: the religious section, whether to begin reducing class sizes, how much parental involvement to require in schools and changes in the state's school readiness program.
The religious issue and the class size section, a mirror of a proposed constitutional amendment, were the two main disputes, and in each case the Senate agreed to take the House's position.
Another controversial issue, whether to create an Alzheimer's center at the University of South Florida, was resolved early in the evening.
The Alzheimer's center is a pet project of Plant City Republican Rep. Johnnie Byrd, whose father died of the disease and who is expected to become speaker of the House next year. Senators originally left the center out of their bill. But then they added it in, without the $40-million in startup costs the House wanted and with the condition it be named after President Ronald Reagan, who has the disease.
House members objected, leading senators to speculate that Byrd wanted the center named after himself, which Byrd denied. Eventually, senators backed down.
Senate President John McKay also had sought to have a road and part of a museum named after him, but senators abandoned that idea not far into the negotiations.
Key lawmakers also spent Thursday negotiating over the budget and are expected to announce today a late April date for a special session for that bill, which lawmakers also failed to pass in regular session.
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From the Times state desk
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