Lawmakers hope 3rd time is the charm for class size redo

Tallahassee, FL – The Republican-led Florida legislature has been complaining for years about the cost of the state's class size amendment a voter-approved referendum put into the state's constitution back in 2001 to address over-crowding in public schools. The rule sets strict numbers on the amount of student's that can be in the class, and in the last decade, Florida has spent more than 18- billion dollars to fulfill the law. Lawmakers believe they've finally found a solution. But as Lynn Hatter reports, the devil is in the details.

Florida has run into a problem in the last few years. A national recession has put a crimp in the state's bank account and with a price tag of 18.7-billion dollars spent so far, class size has come under more scrutiny. Three years ago, the state proposed a bill that would give schools more flexibility in how those numbers were determined- but the Senate rejected that proposal. Last year the legislature tried a constitutional amendment to up the numbers but voters rejected it. And this year, they're back to the original statutory fix but instead of upping the numbers of students in a class they're reducing the number of classes that fall under the amendment. The Senate's version of the plan is sponsored by David Simmons, a Maitland Republican.

"I spoke with DOE and got a list of classes considered Core Curricula, there are 750-800 of them. They include things like Classical Hebrew, Creole Haitian, you name it, and there are so many things that are included outside the definition of core curricula.

The idea behind Simmons' bill is to reduce the number of courses schools have to meet class size in, which yields a lesser chance of being penalized. But some lawmakers like Senate minority leader Nan Rich worries the bill goes too far and will kick out classes that are important.

"Particularly in the South Florida area it's a tremendous disadvantage for kids not to have foreign language, it's important for jobs in the future when they graduate, and many colleges also require foreign language its necessary for entrance. So I think it's a great disservice not to include foreign language as part of the core curricula."

Foreign languages have been added back into the Senate's version of the bill and that's the one that's supported by the Florida Association of School Boards, which has long complained about the fines and penalties tied to the class size rules. Last year the legislature upped the financial penalties and school districts across the state threatened to sue. The Association's director Dr. Wayne Blanton says this year his group believes the senate's solution is workable and will give schools they flexibility they want. He says there are two definitions of what makes up an essential or core, course.

"I think what we're going to end up doing is compromising on the issue and saying if a course is offered for college credit it will be considered a core course, and I think we can probably come together on something there that will meet everyone's expectations."

The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, says while it doesn't like the proposal at all, it would rather have to deal with the Senate's version of the bill. That's because the Senate has a broader interpretation of core courses. From the FEA's perspective, that means more teachers, considered "core" or "essential" too. Spokesman Mark Pudlow.

"It doesn't seek quite as aggressively as the House version to duck funding for public schools. Right now the state defines almost 900 courses as core courses, the House knocks that down to below 300, so that's sort of subverting the idea behind class size."

Class sizes are important this year too. Along with a drop in the money the state can provide for the cause, is also the ability to build new schools. Florida has maxed out its building fund. Public Education Capital Outlay money or PECO dollars are used for building projects for education. The funds are backed through bonds. Last week Ben Watkins with the State Board of Administration told the Florida Cabinet the dollars have dried up.

Scott: "So, can I ask you a question? So does everyone understand that there's no-- I guess this money goes for what K-12, Universities Community Colleges everybody understand there is no money? I mean is that common knowledge?"

Wilkins: "And there has been the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over that issue."

That means new building projects are going to screech to a halt, and schools will have to make do with what they've got. According to the Department of Education., there hasn't been any money allocated for new facilities in the last three years, and none again this year.