Senate panel moves class size bill forward
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Two days after Gov. Jeb Bush announced he wants a revote on the controversial class size amendment, a Senate panel unanimously plowed ahead with the program anyway.
The Senate Education Committee on Thursday approved a bill that tells the Department of Education how to proceed with the constitutional amendment voters approved in November.
The panel stripped any reference to vouchers, which Bush wanted to use as leverage to get districts to comply with the class size caps.
"We didn't want to bog this down in potential conflict," said committee chairman Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the bill (CS-SB 1646).
The bill does include other means to persuade school districts. Those that fail to reduce class sizes as required by the initiative still could face year-round schools, double sessions, an extended school year or changes to school attendance zones.
The class size measure sets a 2010 deadline for all classrooms to have no more than 18 pupils in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 pupils in fourth through eighth grade and 25 students in high school.
Lawmakers must provide the money to reduce the average class size by two students per year until the goals are reached. The Legislature must define average.
Bush proposed defining average on a countywide basis for three levels -- third grade and below, fourth grade through eighth and ninth grade and above.
Constantine's bill uses the same definition as the governor's but only for the first two years.
Under the Senate bill, the definition would change to school average for the three grade groupings. In five years, the actual number of students in each classroom would be used rather than an average.
Reducing class sizes would cost more than $600-million the first year, and could cost as much as $27-billion over its eight-year phase-in.
Already, Bush has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts, which he blames largely on the class size amendment, and state economists next week are expected to shave another $200-million to $300-million off their revenue estimates.
The Republican governor wants a special election to repeal the measure, but won't succeed without the help of Democrats from both chambers. Democrats in both already have voted against him.
"We put our hand up in the air and we made a promise that we're going to uphold and protect the Constitution," Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Thursday. "We have an obligation to do that."
Frustrated, Bush said Thursday it was time for lawmakers to offer their own plan to pay for the amendment. "They can't hide behind me the whole time," he said. "They are going to have to step up now and say, okay we are not going to do that. So how are you going to pay for it?
"Are we going to have year-round schools required for every school district as the solution for this? Are we going to have busing? ... I think when it's all said and done, some might be migrating back to my position."
But Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallendale Beach, said he's concerned about Bush's claims that the class size amendment is taking up too much of the budget when there isn't even a substantial increase in education spending this year over last.
"When I look at the numbers I see we are having a smaller increase in school spending than we had last year" even though the first year of the class size caps are included in Bush's budget proposal, Geller said.
"I'm very concerned that the governor -- let me phrase this politely -- is not perhaps giving the most accurate information to the state of Florida, and that's the most polite way I can say it," Geller said.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire