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Published in Print: June 4, 2003, as Fla. Lawmakers Pave Way For Smaller Classes

Fla. Lawmakers Pave Way For Smaller Classes

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Florida won't see all the changes to its education system that some lawmakers wanted, but education leaders still have much to swallow after the legislature finished a special session last week.

Lawmakers passed a 6 percent increase in spending for K-12 public schools, but almost half the $837.4 million in new money will go toward shrinking class sizes. Voters approved a constitutional amendment last November that puts strict limits on class sizes in every grade.

To reduce enrollment by two students in every classroom this coming fall, legislators adopted many of the rules proposed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who had fought the class-size amendment.

The state will require smaller classes in core academic subjects only, and it wants schools to find classroom space beyond traditional campuses. The new rules instruct high schools to graduate some students early, and call for high schools to encourage students, when possible, to enroll in courses at community colleges.

"Each district will be able to customize a plan that will benefit and meet their own needs," Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Gov. Bush, said last week.

The new rules do not include some of Gov. Bush's more controversial proposals for addressing the class-size issue—most notably, an expansion of state vouchers for students to use in private schools. That plan failed.

The $468.2 million in funding for class-size reduction is part of an $8.2 billion K-12 budget that may cover most school districts' costs for extra teachers and classrooms. But enrollment growth and higher costs for employee benefits will leave some districts considerably short on funds.

Advocates of the class-size reductions wanted more money for the program, but left the special session relieved that Gov. Bush didn't win support for a referendum to overturn the new class-size targets.

"The good news is, it's on the radar screen now. It will become part of education policy in this state," Damien Filer, the spokesman for Florida's Coalition to Reduce Class Size, said of the push for smaller classes.

The November ballot initiative required Florida to cut classroom enrollment by two students each year until schools have no more than 18 students per class in preschool through 3rd grade, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school.

The legislature added $600 million in construction bonds to help school districts increase or renovate classroom space for the smaller classes.

"I'm pretty pleased with the class-size-reduction allocation. The problem is, that's where all our [state] money is," said Joy Frank, the general counsel of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "Districts got a little more money, but our expenses outweigh our increases."

Graduation Days

On another difficult issue, members of the Republican-controlled legislature resisted Gov. Bush's last-minute call to relax new graduation requirements for some students this year. While the governor had already signed a bill that allows some students with disabilities a chance to earn diplomas this spring even if they haven't passed the 10th grade Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, a plan that would also have eased the rules for students still learning to speak English failed.

The Republican-sponsored bill for English-language learners could still pass in a special session scheduled for later this month on medical-malpractice laws. But any action may be too late for some students to walk in caps and gowns this year.

School districts, though, have made clear that English-language learners do not represent most of the roughly 12,000 students in Florida who will not graduate this spring because of their FCAT scores. Most students who have failed to pass the mathematics and English tests are Florida natives.

Gov. Bush did not succumb to recent protests by Democrats and parent groups calling for relaxed graduation requirements for those students. He wants most of the FCAT graduation requirements to remain intact.

Commissioner of Education Jim Horne is reaching out to students who may not graduate under the FCAT rule. He has written letters to students and instructed his agency to start a Web site (www.12thgradeoptions.org), as well as a phone line to help students find assistance with remedial services and fast-track General Educational Development diplomas.

Frances Marine, a spokeswoman for the state education department, noted that about 10,000 students didn't meet Florida's previous graduation requirements. Insisting that the FCAT rule be enforced requires schools and the state to help students who lack the skills to pass the test. "We don't do them any favors by giving them a diploma that equates to an empty promise," she said.

Vouchers and Dollars

While several proposals to expand Florida's statewide voucher programs failed, one popular school choice program will grow.

Legislators agreed to expand the corporate-tax-credit scholarships currently used by about 15,700 students by raising the program's cap from $50 million up to $88 million. The change may allow another 10,000 students to use the voucher-style tuition aid, funded when businesses donate part of their state income taxes to nonprofit groups that dole out $3,500 scholarships to needy students.

Denise Lasher of the Florida Education Freedom Foundation was disappointed that school choice programs didn't gain more ground this year, but she was happy that more students would be able to tap the tax-credit scholarships. "An additional 10,000 low-income students will have more educational options," said Ms. Lasher, the executive director of the Tampa-based group.

The resulting departures may help districts meet class-size limits, but it could also hurt their pocketbooks.

About 8,000 students will transfer from Miami-Dade County public schools into charter schools in the coming fall, and another 2,000 may use the tax-credit scholarships to leave for private schools, said Judith Webb, the district's chief financial officer.

That means enrollment could drop in the 366,000-student district, Ms. Webb said, and state funding could drop as well. While the state budget may cover the estimated $42 million it will cost Miami-Dade County to hire 700 new teachers and pay for other changes needed to meet class-size goals, state funding will not keep pace with rising district insurance and utility costs, Ms. Webb said.

Vol. 22, Issue 39, Pages 16,20

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