Published: Apr 07, 2011 4:36 PM EDT
Updated: Apr 07, 2011 1:37 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.- The statewide teachers union and the senator proposing legislation to weaken the state's class size requirements were trying to reach a compromise, the Florida Education Association's leader said Tuesday.

To try to save money in a tight budget year and increase flexibility for school officials, Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican, has proposed lifting the limits for many classes. They include such courses as social studies, foreign languages and honors or other advanced classes in various subjects that aren't required for graduation or for which there is no state-required assessment testing.

A state constitutional amendment that voters passed through a citizen initiative in 2002 limits class sizes for core curriculum courses.

A pair of similar House and Senate bills (SB 2120, HB 5101) set for floor votes later this week would save millions by reducing the number of core curriculum classes from 849 to 288.

Union President Andy Ford said he met Monday and Tuesday with Simmons to talk about the proposals.

"If a course is required for promotion, for graduation or for college credit or for entrance into college it should be in the core curriculum," Ford said in an interview.

Ford also said the union would wait until after the legislative session ends in May before deciding on any legal challenges to measures affecting schools and teachers.

Ford said foreign language is the biggest stumbling block. Most college entrance requirements include two years of a foreign language in high school.

The legislation would continue to limit core classes to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through third grade and 25 in high school, but would require a head count only once a year in October. If new students enroll, classes could exceed the caps by up to three in kindergarten through third grade and by five in the other grades.

Simmons has said his proposal is a more rational and flexible approach.

The amendment has been interpreted as requiring schools to comply with the caps in every classroom at all times even if new students enroll in the middle of the school year.

When the caps went into full effect for the first time last year, schools took a variety of steps to comply including recalling laid off teachers, hiring lower-paid associate teachers, encouraging students to take more online virtual courses and putting kids from two grade levels in a single classroom.

Most Republicans led by former Gov. Jeb Bush opposed the class size amendment, arguing it's too rigid and expensive. The GOP-controlled Legislature put another amendment on the ballot last year that would have loosened the limits, but it failed at the polls.

The class size changes could be open to possible legal challenge by allowing the caps to be exceeded, according to a House staff analysis.

Ford said the union, though, needs to prioritize its legal spending once the session ends. Other legislation that could be targeted includes a newly passed law that chips away at teachers' due process and collective bargaining rights by establishing a merit pay program and doing away with tenure for new hires.

Also waiting in the wings are bills that would change benefits for teachers and other public employees and effectively cut their pay by requiring them to out 3 percent of their wages into the Florida Retirement System.

"It seems like every day this session meets, they're out to try and find some way of destroying people's rights," Ford said. "This is the make lawyers rich session."

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