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Class size criticism has reached an impasse

Many House and Senate leaders are saying the Legislature will not overturn the voter-approved amendment, at least for now.

Published February 14, 2004

Leading Senate Republicans are backing away from the governor's call to repeal the class size amendment that won voter approval in 2002.

"As far as I'm concerned right now, the voters have spoken," said Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "I think, basically, we need to move on."

That message came through clearly at a recent leadership retreat, said Senate Education Committee chairman Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.

"I don't see it getting on the ballot through the Legislature this year," he said.

The other route to a possible repeal is through a petition drive being led by Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples. But Saunders said that effort is more likely to bear fruit two years from now.

"We're still collecting signatures and still getting responses from people around the state," Saunders said Wednesday. "(But) we may very well be looking at the 2006 ballot rather than the 2004 ballot."

With such remarks becoming the norm, a showdown over a measure that would reduce class size over eight years, at a cost of billions of dollars, is fading. Even Gov. Jeb Bush said he isn't surprised.

"The public hasn't sensed the implications of this yet, and until they do, it's hard to envision the Legislature going about proposing repeal," Bush said.

Many of the people who expected a fight said they think Republicans are wary of offending voters during an election year.

"I think they are hearing from their constituents that there is not a strong desire to correct, or amend, or however you wish to describe it, the amendment," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative affairs for the Florida School Boards Association. "It is an election year. Legislators tend to be a bit more attuned in these times than others."

The class size debate is not dead, though.

Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, has filed a bill that would ask voters to apply reduced class sizes to prekindergarten through third grade only. The amendment sets class size limits for all grades.

Cowin said her proposal, which would require a three-fifths vote of approval in the Senate and the House, would focus state money on cutting class sizes in grades where reductions have proved beneficial elsewhere. And it would free millions of dollars for other proven education programs rather than "feel-good notions," the former educator said.

Cowin brushed off arguments that the "voters have spoken."

"This came forward, for the most part, by the initiative of one man who was running for Congress: Kendrick Meek," she said. "It sounds like an apple pie issue. But that doesn't mean the voters can't look at it again and reaffirm."

At least one leading Republican in the House agrees.

Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, called the class size rules "inflexible" and said they deprive the state of the ability to "really improve" education.

If scaled back, the amendment could have a positive effect and leave millions to improve teacher pay, he said.

"I'm in favor not of repeal, but of amendment," Simmons said. "We're just cheating ourselves if we don't improve the classroom amendment."

A debate on those terms still could take place. But it failed last year, and leaders said that although it might win the day in the House, it is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate.

"I still would be opposed," said Senate Majority Whip Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "I think there's a pretty good group of legislators who feel like I do: that since the citizens have spoken, it would be improper."

Estimates of the cost of class size reduction have ranged from $8-billion to $27.5-billion during the eight-year phase-in period. The goals to be reached by 2010 are 18 students per class in grades preK-3, 22 students per class in grades 4-8 and 25 students per class in grades 9-12.

The greatests costs will be in the later years, when the mandate moves from averages among schools to averages among individual classrooms.

"The districts by and large have made a good-faith effort to implement it," Bush said. "But as we move from district average to school average, there's going to be significant problems."

Saunders said he is waiting to see what the Legislature does before pushing hard on his grass roots petition.

He said he prefers that the question come from the voters, so "no one can say, "Well, it's the Florida Legislature just trying to force an issue."'

Democrats in both houses, as well as teacher organizations, said they are prepared to defend the status quo.

"If the message that is coming from the governor and others is that the public didn't understand what they were voting for, I think that is insulting. There will be a public backlash," said Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach.

But neither Klein nor House Minority Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, expect much of a fight.

"I'm not sure there is widespread support, even though there's lots of talk, for placing another class size amendment on the ballot," Wiles said, noting that no bill has been filed in the House. "And I think that even if it is on the ballot, the voters will support it again. ... What happens to the governor's credibility when it passes again?"

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 or

[Last modified February 14, 2004, 01:31:45]

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