Only eight years after voters amended the state constitution to require smaller class sizes in public schools, a movement to pull back some on the provision is set for the November ballot.
Whether the outcome of a yes vote would simply undo what voters had in mind back then when they approved the limits on class sizes, or would just give schools some common sense flexibility in how they meet the goals voters set, depends on whether you ask backers or opponents of the idea.
“Amendment 8 strikes the right balance between achieving flexibility and smaller class sizes, and educators everywhere will benefit when it passes,” said Larry Wood, managing director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, which is looking for a looser interpretation of how to reach the limits.
But to opponents of the change, it simply means allowing more than 18 students in a classroom in lower grades, 22 in the middle grades and more than the current cap of 25 students in a high school classroom.
"I think my teachers would rather have 25," said Rocky Hanna, principal at Leon High School in Tallahassee, who at one point supported the proposal because he acknowledged it was difficult for schools to meet. Hanna recently changed his mind because he said he came to realize that by changing the class size calculations, lawmakers would be able to send less money to schools.
That is actually one of the main reasons for looking to loosen the requirement. Shrinking class sizes is expensive – it requires more teachers. And one of the reasons districts have begun to clamor for flexibility in meeting the limits is that in a down economy when tax collections have dropped, meeting the limits is difficult. Opponents have argued that without the constitutional requirement for class size limits, lawmakers will take the opportunity to send less money to the schools.
Another reason the issue is back before voters this year, as opposed to some other time: the hard numerical per-classroom caps actually went into effect this year. The limits have been phased in since 2002.
But it's been problematic from the beginning for lawmakers, who have been under pressure to put more money into the public schools’ budget, with administrators voicing concerns that without it, they’d have a hard time complying with the requirement. The cost has been a major concern since before the original amendment was even passed. It’s highest profile opponent back in 2002 was then- Gov. Jeb Bush, who said the cost of it would “blot out the sun.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature has pushed for tax cuts in recent years, and wasn’t going to solve the problem by raising any new revenue.
So with that backdrop, lawmakers voted this past year to put the amendment on the ballot to ask voters to reconsider, to let class size caps to be calculated at a school-wide average, rather than on a per-classroom basis.
The state teachers' union has staunchly defended the original class size provision, arguing that the softening of the law is merely the Legislature backing out of a promise to fund the schools to a point where they can meet the hard caps.
The group's campaign to defeat the amendment, Vote No On 8, tried to get the measure bounced from the ballot, but lost that fight before the state Supreme Court.
Opponents of the measure say they still believe voters will reject the change. To pass, the amendment needs 60 percent voter approval.
“I think Florida voters are smart,” said State Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, who is chairing the Vote No On 8 campaign. “They've indicated in the polls that have been conducted that class size (limits are) good.”
Backers of the change, in addition to many of the Republicans in the Legislature, include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and several other education groups, mostly representing administrators.
“Amendment 8 reflects the spirit and the intent of the 2002 class size amendment and will not return to the days of crowded classrooms as opponents claim,” Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last week.
Neither side has aired any television or radio advertisements yet, but it is likely they will do so as Election Day draws nearer.