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State panel ponders class sizes, vouchers
The commission has the authority to put constitutional issues on the state ballot.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 21, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Two hot-button education issues - class size limits and private school vouchers - were discussed Friday by the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which has the power to put state constitutional amendments on the ballot.
One of the panel's committees heard proposals that would loosen class size restrictions voters approved in 2002 and reverse a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down one of the state's voucher programs.
Similar proposals narrowly failed in the Legislature last year after contentious and sometimes emotional debate. Lawmakers avoided both issues during this year's regular session.
Leaders of associations representing local school boards and superintendents asked the commission's Governmental Services Committee to modify the existing class size amendment. They argued it is too rigid and diverts money into adding more classrooms, including portables, that could be better spent on increasing teacher salaries and meeting other school needs.
Representatives of the Collins Center for Public Policy asked the commission to offer an amendment or recommend legislation that would give the Legislature unrestricted authority to pass voucher programs. They let students attend parochial and other private schools at public expense.
Committee Chairman Roberto "Bobby" Martinez, also a member of the State Board of Education, said afterward that he strongly favored lifting restrictions against vouchers.
"It is prudent public policy to give the Legislature the legal flexibility to explore these programs," Martinez said.
Attempts to revive both issues surprised the Florida Education Association. The statewide teachers union has strongly supported the existing class size amendment and led the legal challenge against the stricken voucher program.
The Supreme Court ruled a voucher program that had been a key part of then-Gov. Jeb Bush's public school accountability system violated a constitutional provision that requires a uniform system of public schools.
Bush also was a key player in the class size dispute. He campaigned against the 2002 citizen initiative, arguing that reducing class sizes would be too expensive.
The amendment limits classes to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school beginning with the 2010-11 school year.
In the meantime it is being phased in. The limits currently must be met on a school average basis. Local school officials are seeking an amendment to make that the ultimate standard or revert back to a districtwide average.