Florida's Big Fuss Over Small Classes

 

Frustrated by some of the most overcrowded classrooms in America, Florida voters rewrote their constitution in 2002 to cut class sizes. But so far, it hasn't worked out the way educators and parents might have hoped.

New teachers were hired to handle the larger number of classes necessary to lower the average class size in kindergarten through high school. But state education spending has not kept pace with increases in employee benefits and other costs, resulting in some cuts in school supplies, enrichment programs and teachers' aides.

In addition, the law exacerbated Florida's already chronic shortage of classroom space, forcing even greater reliance on politically unpopular portable classrooms.

More money could fix the problem. But that's not in the cards because Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the state Board of Education and key lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature never liked the small-class mandate in the first place and aren't eager to lavish money on it. In fact, they would rather see the class-reduction law rolled back or thrown out, especially given the state's tight budget. Because class sizes are now spelled out in the state constitution, it's difficult even to tinker with the law.

The result is that Florida's experiment in reducing class sizes is a mixed bag for students and a continuing nettlesome problem for state politicians, who feel their hands are tied.

Florida is the only state to limit class sizes by constitution. After years of debate over how to deal with crowded Florida schools, voters took the issue into their own hands and adopted a ballot initiative in 2002 to limit kindergarten through third grade to 18 students, fourth through eighth grade to 22 students and high school classes to 25 by the 2010-2011 school year. Schools began phasing in smaller classes this school year.

Several states have reduced class size by law or regulation, also with mixed success. California educators recently supported legislation to allow more flexibility with that state's class-size regulations. Most Nevada school districts have not been able to meet class-size limits because of a lack of state funding, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

In Florida, the governor and other skeptics argue that the class-reduction requirement provides too little academic benefit to justify the high cost. The first two years are projected to cost more than $1.4 billion, and may eventually cost $2.5 billion per year, according to the governor's estimates.

The good news is that teachers have noticed an improved atmosphere for working with students, said Sandra Ramos, an assistant superintendent in Pasco County. Her school district provides a look at the repercussions of the law.

The Pasco County Public School system, which includes Land O'Lakes, Fla., on the Gulf Coast, has nearly 58,000 students in 59 schools and added 2,800 students just this school year. The county added 500 teachers this school year, including 180 teachers just to achieve smaller class sizes. But hiring that many teachers becomes difficult because it increases competition for highly qualified people, Ramos said. "When you're hiring that many [teachers], the pool gets very thin," she said.

The next hurdle was meeting the need for new classrooms, Ramos said. The county is teaching the equivalent of nine schools in portable classrooms this year. In addition, the state is requiring that classrooms in future construction be built smaller, forcing districts to redesign some building projects.

But the biggest problem for Pasco County and other school districts is that spending increases for other education programs have slowed to offset the cost of class-size reductions, said Marshall Ogletree, a lobbyist for the state's teachers union. State mandates for a teacher career ladder and the fast-rising cost of health insurance are among the higher costs with which school districts must struggle, he said.

Pasco County lost nearly $11 million through cuts to other school programs and was forced to lay off some classroom aides and cancel an elementary school environmental studies program among other things, Ramos said.

In his 2004-2005 state education budget, Bush recommended a $1 billion increase, or 7.12 percent, for a total $15.1 billion. Of the total, $976 million would go specifically to reduce class sizes, an increase of $508.2 million over this year, according to state figures.

That means the rest of the education budget would increase by less than 3.5 percent, even as Florida's public school population continues to grow. In fact, this year's budget underestimated student enrollment by more than 18,000 students, Ogletree said, and the legislature had to appropriate emergency money to fund schools.

State Sen. Burt Saunders (R), who opposes the current class-size requirements, questions whether the academic benefits of smaller classes are worth the price, especially for middle- and high-school students. "I don't think there's any evidence that having an arbitrary number of students in a class improves education," he said. "Intuitively, we can all say that in kindergarten there shouldn't be more than 18 to 22 students in a class."

But supporters of smaller classes charge that Bush is using the budget to make the class-size reduction requirements as unpalatable as possible.

"The governor has been very vocal that there would be a high price to pay for the class-size reduction," Ramos said.

Bush's spokeswoman, Jill Bratina, told Stateline.org that the governor continues to have concerns about the cost of the class-size reduction amendment.

Bush's official statements leave no doubt about his hope to see the amendment repealed. "Bearing the Class Size Burden" is the heading of the governor's Web page that explains his position and the amount of money he has dedicated to meet the requirements.

"Governor Jeb Bush and Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings have faithfully implemented the constitutional amendment to reduce class size passed by the voters in 2002," the governor states on his Web site. "However, they are also committed to demonstrating how costly this amendment is and that Florida began witnessing rising student achievement and improved school grades well before this amendment passed."

Bush even has proposed a deal: If voters would repeal the class-size amendment, he would pump $250 million more into teacher raises statewide.

In an effort to repeal the class-size amendment or limit the mandate to kindergarten through third grade, some Republican legislators are proposing that the legislature put the issue back on the November ballot. But chances aren't good because it would require three-fifths vote in both houses to get it on the ballot. Even Republicans, who generally oppose the amendment, would be unlikely to try to repeal it just two years after voters adopted it, Saunders said.

Saunders also has begun what he admits is an uphill battle to put the amendment back on the ballot by petition. That will require him to collect more than 488,000 signatures from at least half of the state's congressional districts by August.

Nancy Keenan, education policy director for the non-profit People for the American Way, said that if political leaders are feeling handcuffed by the law, they are to blame for letting the problem get so bad that a constitutional amendment was needed. "Had the governor and legislature addressed the problem, they wouldn't be in this corner," she said. "This very well could be laid at the feet of the legislators who failed to act on the needs of the public." 

 
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