Amendment 8 Class-Size Vote Puts Florida Lawmakers in a Bind

 

 

Ever since the state's voters approved an initiative in 2002 to limit school class sizes, Florida and its school districts have scurried to hire thousands of new teachers and build thousands of new classrooms. 

What have the billions of dollars in spending produced for Florida's school children? Don Gaetz, a state senator and former school superintendent, says the answer is nothing. "The taxpayers of Florida have spent $16 billion in complying with the class-size mandate," he says. "There is no evidence that this $16 billion produced any results in improving student performance."

That's one man's opinion. The Florida voters don't exactly agree. On Tuesday, they rejected Amendment 8, a ballot measure that would have eased up on the class size rules. (For Stateline 's overview of which ballot measures passed and failed, click here .)

In defeating the amendment, Florida's voters muddled the message they sent to Tallahassee in 2010. At the same time the state elected a conservative Republican Legislature and a conservative Republican governor, it obliged them to spend billions of dollars more on a school reform that most elected officials oppose. As a result, Florida is about to become a case study in how a state's leaders cope when the public has tied the government's hands through the ballot.

Teachers love it

The 2002 initiative grew out of complaints from education funding advocates that Florida lawmakers were shortchanging schools. Mandatory class sizes were a way to force the Legislature to spend more. The class-size rules have had the strong support of the state P.T.A. and teachers unions. "Our teachers love it," says Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. "They have more control in the classroom. They're teaching to smaller groups."

Still, solid evidence of benefits from the change is hard to find. Nationally, research tends to show that small class sizes are important for very young children, but don't really matter at higher grade levels. Florida's test scores have improved over the past eight years, but disentangling the effects of smaller class sizes is difficult. 

Matt Chingos, a Harvard University researcher, tried. He looked at school districts and individual schools that were forced to shrink class sizes because of the new rules and at others where class sizes were smaller to begin with. He found that for students in grades 3 through 8, test scores didn't improve any more in the places with large class size reductions than in places with smaller ones. "I crunched these data as hard you can," says Chingos. "I just wasn't able to find any evidence that this policy had any effect."

That's the context in which Florida legislators asked voters this week to loosen the rules. The timing was important. The 2002 amendment called for gradually more stringent implementation, beginning with mandates for average class size at the school district level, then at the single school level and then, finally, for each individual classroom. 

The classroom requirements went into effect this fall: 18 students or fewer up through third grade; 22 or fewer for grades 4 through 8; and 25 or fewer for ninth grade and higher. By referring Measure 8 to this year's ballot, lawmakers were trying to offer school districts a reprieve. The amendment, which would have applied retroactively to the start of the current school year, proposed to ease the classroom size requirements by three students in the lower grades and by five students in the higher ones.  

Besides winning the backing of the Legislature, Measure 8 had the endorsement of both Republican Rick Scott, the eventual winner of the governorship, and Alex Sink, his Democratic opponent. Most of Florida's editorial boards were for it, too. And it did win 55 percent of the vote. But in Florida, 60 percent of the vote is required to amend the constitution. The tougher rules will continue, costing the state billions of dollars.

Less for art and music 

So school districts in Florida are scrambling. They're also pleading with state officials for relief — relief the state might not be able to give. Some districts, such as Palm Beach County, opted not to cut their class sizes enough to meet the existing mandate, hoping that Amendment 8 would pass. They face fines from the state. 

Okaloosa County Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts says her district made it under the limit this time but with the expiration of the federal stimulus, has little chance of ever being able to abide by the rules again. "It's driving everything," Tibbetts says. "The operational costs go up because you have to hire more teachers and the capital costs have gone up because you need more classrooms. We have high-quality teachers and great administrators, but we're handcuffed by these amendments that people vote in."

The question now is what state lawmakers can do about it. One possibility is that the Legislature could abolish the fines for districts that don't comply. Those weren't part of the 2002 amendment. They're written in statute instead, and could be removed by legislative vote.

Gaetz, who sponsored the effort to relax the requirements through the ballot, is skeptical. Eliminating the consequences for failure to meet the requirements, he says, would be akin to ignoring the constitution. "Every school board member," he says, "takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States and the state of Florida." With Measure 8 defeated, Gaetz expects school districts to continue to spend less on arts, music and technical classes for high school students, which are exempt from class size requirements.

Other districts have moved to more extreme measures. Seminole County schools, for example, have closed grade levels at some schools to new students to stay in compliance with the rules. If new students show up, they're redirected elsewhere in the district. Steve Bouzianis, the district's human resources director, says it's a constant struggle to meet the requirements. "We're monitoring over 16,000 classrooms on a day-to-day basis," he says. Legislators have discussed whether they could offer districts more flexibility when students show up after the year begins, but so far they haven't acted.

The other option, of course, is to increase education funding. But the state doesn't have the money. Florida is projected to have a budget shortfall of roughly $2.5 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. A tax increase would bring in additional money, but Scott has pledged not to raise taxes. Florida voters elected him at the same moment their vote on Amendment 8 virtually forced him to find more money somewhere. 

"We have a governor who wants to cut state government," says Pudlow of the Florida Education Association. "We have a legislature that's loath to raise any more revenue. I'm not sure how this is going to play out." 

 
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