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Another try to tinker with class size coming?

A key legislator ponders a trade o ff: a less stringent amendment for a teacher pay boost.

By Ron Matus
Published January 10, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Yet another attempt by Florida lawmakers to modify the class size amendment may be in the works.

Rep. David Simmons, the chairman of a new education committee created by incoming House Speaker Marco Rubio, told other members Tuesday that he wants to raise teacher salaries, and that savings from a modified amendment would be a good place to get the money.

Last year, the state allocated $1.6-billion to reduce class sizes.

"It's better to invest in the teacher," Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said after the meeting. "The human resource is a much better asset than the bricks and mortar."

Simmons said other legislative leaders were receptive. But "I don't have any misconceptions or delusions that this is going to happen unless there is buy-in and a general consensus from the stakeholders."

Translation: If teachers don't back a change, it won't fly.

The 2002 amendment caps the eventual number of students in each classroom to 18 in kindergarten to third grade, 22 in Grades 4-8 and 25 in Grades 9-12. Voters narrowly passed it over then-Gov. Jeb Bush's objections, but polls show its popularity has grown despite persistent concerns about cost, flexibility and effectiveness.

Research shows good teachers boost student achievement far more than modest reductions in class size, and critics say the amendment's rigid caps make it harder to help struggling students who may need dramatically smaller classes.

Lawmakers have made several attempts to offer voters a modified amendment, including a Bush-led plan to trade class size flexibility for slightly higher salaries for new teachers. None were endorsed by the state teachers union, and none made it out of the Legislature.

Union spokesman Mark Pudlow said it's too early to say where Simmons' comments might lead - so far, no class size bills have been introduced - but he didn't rule out the possibility of a compromise.

"We'd have to look at the specifics," he said.

The union wouldn't be the only hurdle. The state Senate shot down last year's attempt to modify the amendment and new Gov. Charlie Crist said during the campaign he supported it. Any change would also need approval from 60 percent of voters, thanks to a new constitutional amendment setting a higher threshold for future amendments.

In a related development, Simmons promised to tweak the state's new performance pay plan, which will award some teachers bonuses based on student test scores. Many teachers say the plan is unfair and impractical and complain it was crafted without their input.

"My goal is going to be to forge a consensus," Simmons told other committee members after a presentation on the plan by Education Department officials. "Then we can continue implementation ... in a manner everyone can live with."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 10, 2007, 00:58:22]


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