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Florida House passes bills to encourage school uniforms, ease class size penalties


TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida legislators on Friday endorsed a line of changes for the state's public schools, including easing class size penalties for school districts and encouraging students to start wearing uniforms.

The Florida House passed several education bills, including one that would let privately-run but publicly-funded charter schools tap into local property taxes to pay for buildings.

Some of the ideas have been considered before.

But one new approach House leaders are pushing would provide a financial incentive to school districts that require elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms.

The House voted 102-8 for the measure (HB 7043) that would pay districts $10 more per student if a uniform policy is adopted. Districts are currently paid nearly $7,000 for each student.

Legislators backing the proposal say that uniforms could help improve school safety and would remove stress that comes from students having to figure out what to wear to school each day. Districts would be shielded from lawsuits if they implement the uniform policy. School uniforms would have to feature solid colors.

Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, said he sent his four children to schools that required uniforms and called it a "liberating" experience.

"The school districts that decide to implement this policy, the next morning parents all across the state are going to be celebrating," Spano said.

But Rep. John Tobia, a Melbourne Beach Republican, opposed the bill.

"This bill will cost taxpayers on the front end, this will cost parents on the back end and this is going to eliminate school choice for the students that attend," Tobia said.

The House also voted 107-3 to ease the penalties associated with violating the state's class size limits.

A 2002 state constitutional amendment limits classes in core subjects to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

The state now penalizes districts for every class over those limits. The bill (HB 665) would impose penalties based on the overall school average class size. But it would also end the state's ability to take money away from districts that fail to meet the limits. Instead districts with oversized classes would be allowed to keep the penalty money and spend it on reducing their own class sizes.

Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, called it a "common sense" change that would ensure that money is spent in the classroom.

But Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader, contended that the change would remove any incentive for districts to follow class size limits. He called it a "death by a thousand cuts."

Since 2003 the state has spent nearly $30 billion on class size requirements. Most of that money has been used to hire additional teachers.

The House on Friday also voted 75-35 for a bill that would allow charter schools to get a share of local school district construction money if the Legislature did not set aside a certain amount.

Democrats did not debate the bill (HB 7037) but Pafford in a written statement said the bill would "starve public schools."

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