Responding to a request by an appellate court, the Florida Supreme Court agreed Thursday to take up a dispute between the states largest teachers union and the Legislature, which have squared off over lawmakers attempt to relax class size restrictions passed by voters in 2002.
Less than a week after Leon County Circuit Court Chief Judge Charles Francis rejected a challenge by the Florida Education Association, the First District Court of Appeal asked the Florida Supreme Court to take action quickly on whether Amendment 8 will be included among a shrinking list of proposals decided by voters Nov. 2.
This appeal involves a question of great public importance and requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court of Florida, the appellate court wrote in an order that sends the case directly to the states highest court.
With the election now less than seven weeks away, attorneys for both sides have said they wanted the Supreme Court to get its hands on the case as quickly as possible. While agreeing to take the case, justices did not set a trial schedule or date for oral arguments.
Approved by lawmakers earlier this year, Amendment 8 would give school districts more flexibility in meeting class-size requirements, allowing them to meet a standard based on schoolwide averages, rather than strictly enforcing limits in individual classrooms. Currently, the caps are set at 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school.
The amendment was challenged by the state's largest teachers union, which argued that voters would be largely unaware that the proposal could result in reduced funding for public schools. In a 10-page ruling, Francis disagreed.
"The court finds the ballot and title summary are very clear and unambiguous as to what the amendment purports to do in reference to the changes in class size," Francis wrote. "It revises them as plainly and simply as the title so indicates."
The FEA, which filed suit to strike the issue from the ballot, immediately appealed.
"The Legislature tried to 'hide the ball' from Florida voters by misrepresenting the chief purpose of Amendment 8 -- which is to reduce the state's obligation to adequately fund public schools," FEA lawyer Ron Meyer said in a statement following Francis ruling.
School administrators have argued the tight caps have made it more difficult to set schedules and have resulted in some classes being cancelled and difficulty when they are at capacity and new students enroll in the district. Sixty-percent of voters must approve Amendment 8 in November for the relaxed standards to take effect.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who spearheaded efforts to pass the 2002 cap, decried the Legislature's attempt to dilute the voters will, saying the Republican-led Legislature's proposal is an affront to the voters who only eight years earlier made it clear they wanted more money spent on schools.
"Amendment 8 is a misleading attempt to trick Florida voters into watering down hard-fought class size limits and reduce funding for our schools and children," said Meek, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. "Backers of Amendment 8 are full and active participants in the culture of special interest bidding that has gone on for too long."