Florida Debates How To Shrink Class Sizes
Florida voters returned Gov. Jeb Bush to office on the same day last November that they approved strict new class-size limits for public schools. Though the Republican governor called the constitutional amendment too costly and cumbersome, he now must carry out a plan he fought hard to defeat.
That process began recently when Mr. Bush announced his plan for dealing with the new caps. As members of the Republican-controlled legislature prepare to interpret the details of the law when they gather next month, the governor's plan has already begun to generate heated political debate.
Mr. Bush wants to dedicate $628 million in the coming year's budget for smaller classes. But he warned that Florida won't meet the letter of the new law without taking such steps as expanding private school vouchers, lifting restrictions on the number of charter schools, moving to year-round schedules, or redrawing attendance zones.
"The people of our state must fully understand the costs will include either spending cuts or tax increases in future years," Gov. Bush said when he announced his plan Jan. 23.
Critics of the governor, including backers of the class-size amendment, have a plan of their own. They say that Gov. Bush wants to spend too little and emphasize school choice too much, threatening the very purpose of the law.
That competing proposal, which was released last week, would require Florida to spend an estimated $1 billion or more a year to comply with the new class-size limits. In addition to calling for greater spending to pay for more teachers, Florida's Coalition to Reduce Class Size wants the caps to apply to a broader range of academic courses than under Gov. Bush's plan, which would leave out classes in physical education, fine arts, and other subjects.
"He's not by any stretch of the imagination adequately funding this thing," said Damien Filer, the spokesman for the Tallahassee-based class-size coalition, which was founded by U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., when he was a state senator.
The two proposals find some common ground on ways to bolster the teaching corps and make better use of school facilities. But the coalition's plan argues for bringing charter schools under the class-size limits—in contrast to the governor's interpretation of the amendment—and against allowing vouchers to be used as a tool for shrinking class rosters.
"That was not the spirit of the mandate," Mr. Filer said of the governor's proposal to use tuition vouchers for private schools to help create smaller public school classes.
Using the 'Toolbox'
However state leaders ultimately decide to interpret the amendment, Gov. Bush's administration will still have to carry out a pricey program he never wanted.
"Clearly, we thought it clashed with our own priorities," Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, who was appointed by Gov. Bush, said of the ballot measure. "The research on class size is pretty spotty."
Despite his reservations about the new mandate, Mr. Horne said last week that state leaders were serious about helping districts follow the law. The governor's plan is a "toolbox" that local districts can use in their own ways, he said.
The governor urged the use of team teaching, online courses, and shared classes between high schools and community colleges. He also proposed a $2.2 billion bond issue for school construction to build classrooms statewide.
Sorting out what the law means is the first challenge for state leaders and school districts alike.
The amendment says districts' average class sizes must be reduced "by two" starting in the fall of 2003. "Two from what?" said Bill Montford, the superintendent of the 33,000-student Leon County district, based in Tallahassee.
For example, Mr. Montford estimated that his county would need 53 extra teachers to cut average class sizes in grades K-5 by two pupils next fall.
Mr. Montford said he had opposed the class-size amendment, and welcomed the governor's plan to allow districts flexibility in carrying out its mandates.
"The vast majority of superintendents in Florida are pleased with the proposal that Governor Bush put forth," he said.
Schools that did not meet class-size limits starting next fall would be required to use vouchers, double sessions, and other measures, under the Bush plan. Mr. Horne said the governor's toolbox, if approved, must be used.
"Those tools, as we say, at some point become hammers if, in fact, you don't comply," he said.
The consequences of major class-size reductions are playing out elsewhere, including in California. The Golden State has lowered class sizes in grades K-3, but is now coping with large classes in higher grades and shortages of teachers with proper credentials.
New Role for Vouchers?
Under Gov. Bush's plan, the state would allow Florida districts to approve the use of state-financed tuition vouchers to alleviate overcrowded classes if necessary. The vouchers could be used at private schools, including religious ones.
Vouchers would not help larger districts deal with class-size limits, said Joe Donzelli, a spokesman for the 267,000-student Broward County schools, which includes Fort Lauderdale. "That's not what the voters voted for," he said.
Miami-Dade County, may be forced to depend on such alternatives to provide smaller classes, said Judith A. Webb, the chief budget officer for the 366,000-student school district, the largest in the state and the fourth largest in the nation.
The district may consider extended school days and team teaching to meet the requirement, Ms. Webb said. More charter schools and increased participation in voucher-like programs could also help the district shrink its student rolls, she added.
Corporate tax-credit scholarships have become the most popular such program in Florida. About 10,000 students were using them when this school year began in August, after lawmakers first allowed businesses to donate part of their state taxes to nonprofit agencies that provide tuition aid for private schooling.
The state also provides vouchers for students in Florida's 10 lowest-rated schools, and for special education students who wish to attend private schools or seek private assistance with their disabilities. ("Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers," Sept. 4, 2002.)
Commissioner Horne said providing vouchers as a way to reduce class sizes does not mean administration officials want to "voucherize everything."
Mr. Montford of Leon County said he does think Gov. Bush was using the class-size plan "to push vouchers or charter schools or anything."
"This is a tremendous undertaking, and it's going to take all the ingenuity we have to address these issues," he said.
Debate on the class-size strategies may have just begun, but Mr. Filer of the class-size coalition said lawmakers must remember that the voters have spoken.
"There is a real, general groundswell of support and frustration about classroom overcrowding in Florida schools," he said. "No amount of rhetoric is going to make this go away."
Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this report.
Vol. 22, Issue 21, Pages 15,21