Published Online: February 19, 2008
Published in Print: February 20, 2008, as Leaner Class Sizes Add Fiscal Stress To Florida Districts

Leaner Class Sizes Add Fiscal Stress to Florida Districts

With a total price tag pushing $10 billion, Florida’s class-size-reduction mandate —the nation’s toughest—is under fire, as school districts call on lawmakers to weaken the 2002 constitutional requirement before it is fully phased in later this year.

Starting with the 2008-09 school year, individual districts must meet new size caps in each classroom, robbing school officials of the wiggle room they enjoyed during the phase-in period, when school systems were allowed to use districtwide and then schoolwide averages in calculating class sizes.

The new requirements mean that districts must reduce pupil-teacher ratios in every classroom to 18-to-1 in prekindergarten though 3rd grade, 22-to-1 in grades 4-8, and 25-to-1 in high school, or face financial penalties from the state department of education.

Officials warn that the mandate will mean hiring more teachers and building more classrooms at a time when the state is facing an ongoing $2 billion budget deficit and new pressures from a recently approved constitutional amendment cutting property taxes.

“We’re in the train-wreck phase of this,” said state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Republican who opposed the class-size amendment in 2002, when he was the superintendent of the 31,000-student Okaloosa County school district.

Now, as a legislator, he’s urging fellow policymakers to put another measure to amend the Florida Constitution on the ballot later this year that would relax the class-size caps. “We need a long-term solution,” Mr. Gaetz said. “Creative reading of the constitution, or creative writing around it, may not work.”

Ambitious—and Costly

Florida offers a cautionary example of what can happen when an ambitious education reform idea comes with a hefty, continuing price.

Reducing class size is a popular improvement strategy nationwide, and one that has support from research—in particular, the so-called Tennessee STAR study, which stands for Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio.

Recognized as the most comprehensive, longest-lasting research on class sizes, the study tracked nearly 12,000 students who had been part of the experiment from 1985 to 1990. It found that students benefited from smaller class sizes in the early grades and even through 12th grade, and that low-income students tended to benefit the most. That study also found the greatest improvements were in classes that ranged from 13 to 17 students—smaller than the Florida thresholds.

States are gambling on the benefits of reducing class sizes.

In New York state, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Contracts for Excellence program requires that districts use additional state aid—$430 million this budget year—on state-approved reform strategies, a list that includes class-size reduction. ("Tighter Link Sought Between Spending, Achievement in N.Y.," Sept. 5, 2007.)

Washington state is seven years into a voter-approved initiative that targets additional state aid to reducing class sizes in grades K-4.

And in California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, helped usher in a nearly $1 billion class-size-reduction program in 1996. Districts could choose to accept the money in exchange for adding teachers, but eight years later, the state had to relax the stringent ground rules. ("Calif. Law Gives Schools New Spending Flexibility," Oct. 13, 2004.)

But no state has gone as far as Florida, where voters placed hard-and-fast class-size caps in the state constitution in 2002. Since then, the program has been phased in, and the costs have climbed to more than $3 billion a year in terms of additional money for teacher salaries and classrooms.

The initiative has succeeded in cutting class sizes, especially in lower grades, where head counts have dropped an average of nearly seven children per class since 2002.

Yet there’s still significant progress to be made in meeting the stricter caps set for each classroom by next school year. In grades 9-12 this school year, 33 percent of classrooms still exceed the 25-to-1 cap, while nearly 29 percent of pre-K-3 classrooms didn’t meet their limit, according to the Florida Department of Education. Next year, a district that has one classroom over that limit will not be in compliance.

The state’s 360 charter schools aren’t exempt. And that’s proving to be a vexing problem for the public but independently run schools, because they don’t get money for facilities from property taxes or from the state program that provides additional capital money for class-size reduction.

“It’s going to be very difficult for some of our schools,” said Mike Kooi, the executive director of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. “The whole concept of charter schools is to be different and to be innovative, but that’s being stifled by what is a pretty inflexible amendment.”

State Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith was unavailable for comment last week, and his office couldn’t say whether the education department believes that more flexibility is needed in implementing the class-size mandate.

Bill Comes Due

Florida’s Crowded Classrooms

As of the 2008-09 school year, all Florida school districts will have to meet class-size requirements dictated by a 2002 amendment to the state constitution. More than a quarter of Florida’s classrooms are still over those limits.

Exceeding class-size caps is a costly proposition for Florida’s districts. This school year, when districts had to meet only schoolwide class-size averages, a total of 69 schools in 31 districts failed to meet the caps and faced the penalty: having to transfer operating funds used to pay for expenses such as teacher salaries into their capital budgets to add more classrooms.

Districts can appeal, however, to the state board of education on the basis of unexpected enrollment growth, inability to hire teachers, and reporting errors. After this year’s appeals, 16 districts were still ordered to transfer a total of nearly $500,000, significantly less than the $5 million in total funds that 24 districts had to transfer in the 2006-07 school year, according to the education department. Eight charter schools were out of compliance, and they also paid penalties.

Sen. Gaetz, who is the chairman of his chamber’s education committee, said lawmakers are looking at a couple of options. First, the constitution calls for the class-size caps to be in effect by 2010-11, although the law that implements the amendment is on a faster track. Lawmakers could delay further implementation, he said.

He also is urging the state’s appointed Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years and has the rare power of being able to put a constitutional question directly on the ballot, to propose another amendment that gives districts more flexibility. Commission Chairman Allan Bense did not respond to a request for comment.

Even though Sen. Gaetz generally supports smaller class sizes, he echoes the feelings of many school officials who say they aren’t sure spending so much money on a single initiative is justified if it comes at the expense of a stronger curriculum and high-quality teachers.

Larry E. Hughes, a school board member in the 75,000-student Brevard County school district, said: “We are not totally convinced that class size is the most cost-effective way of improving student achievement.”

He said the way his district interprets the law and the state constitution, if an additional child arrives at an elementary school in April, and all of the classrooms are at their maximum, another teacher has to be found, and an existing class split into two. He said the district, which is located in the Cape Canaveral “Space Coast” part of the state, already has expanded its classroom space by about 30 percent since 2002 to meet the class-size requirements.

Creative solutions may not be the answer, either. Earlier this month, Mr. Hughes proposed dividing students into morning and afternoon sessions at one particularly crowded junior-senior high school. But parents balked, and he dropped the idea.

“This really could be quite costly and may yield few tangible benefits,” he said of the class-size requirement.

The major champion for the class-size amendment from the start has been the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

But even the teachers’ union agrees with critics that some flexibility is needed. Union spokesman Mark Pudlow said districts, for example, make a “ridiculous” argument when they say classrooms may have to be broken apart in the middle of the school year to make way for new students.

“We’re willing to talk about flexibility like that, but this issue doesn’t need to go back before the voters,” he said.

The union also rejects the argument that the amendment is too expensive.

“The fiscal argument has always been made against it,” he said. “But we’ve raised standards, and standardized-test results have gone up. We’re seeing results.”

Vol. 27, Issue 24, Pages 1,18

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