School Climate & Safety

Class-Size Reduction Is Slow Going in Fla.

By Alan Richard — February 18, 2004 5 min read
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Round 1 ended in November 2002, when Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that limits class sizes in K-12 schools. Get ready for Round 2.

As Florida school districts struggle to set smaller classes as the law requires, some Republican leaders want to scale back the class-size limits or repeal them completely.

“There is going to be a very aggressive, assertive, determined effort to see this repealed,” said Damien Filer, a spokesman for Florida’s Coalition to Reduce Class Size, which pushed voters to pass the class-size amendment two years ago. (“Schools to See Big Windfalls From State Ballot Measures,” Nov. 13, 2002.)

Two-thirds of both legislative chambers in Florida would have to agree before voters could decide on possible changes to the class-size law on ballots next November.

Rep. Bev Kilmer said many state legislators support giving voters that option. The Republican chairwoman of the House education committee said voters could be asked to scale back the class-size limits in grades K-3, or do away with them altogether.

Ms. Kilmer is running for Congress this year, and she’s asked people attending her events to raise their hands if they support keeping the class-size law in place. “Rarely did any hands go up,” she said.

Florida voters approved the class-size limits on the same day they re-elected Gov. Jeb Bush—one of the amendment’s most vocal opponents.

Citing the program’s huge potential costs, Gov. Bush vowed to work against the law even as state agencies under his leadership were charged with enforcing it.

That task led state Commissioner of Education Jim Horne to warn dozens of Florida districts recently that they hadn’t complied with the class-size law. Some districts made technical adjustments, or filed new paperwork to bring themselves into compliance.

Eleven school districts still were not in compliance last week, and the state education board was set to penalize some of those districts on Feb. 17. The board can force the districts to shift millions of state dollars toward school facilities.

The state board, appointed by Gov. Bush, was considering sanctions—even though its members voted unanimously last year in favor of scaling back the class-size limits to grades K-3.

The law limits class sizes to 18 in grades K-3, to 22 students in grades 4-8, and to 25 in high school. Those sizes must be reached incrementally by 2010. Florida’s push to shrink class sizes is the most sweeping statewide effort of its kind since California launched its program in 1996 under then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican.

Complying With Law

Pasco County in the Tampa suburbs was one of the districts that didn’t comply at first. Many elementary schools in the growing 55,000-student district have multiage classes, and some schools merge classes of children learning to speak English with regular classes for portions of the day.

Those factors complicated the class-size counts and kept the district out of compliance initially, said Bob Dorn, the administrator who oversees the program for the Pasco County schools. The district has complied by clarifying its use of multi-age classes and other factors that affect class size, he said.

“No one has the ability right now to say, ‘Never mind.’ It’s a constitutional amendment,” he said. “Is it a bad thing? Absolutely not.”

The class-size amendment’s impact is evident at places such as Pasco County’s Pine View Middle School. The campus was cramped even before the amendment passed and the school lowered class sizes slightly.

Pine View has 1,650 students in grades 6-8, with more coming next fall in the building designed for 1,200.

Principal Dave Estabrook said he agrees with making classes smaller but that he strains to find enough classroom space and teachers. His school already uses 15 portable classrooms, and could see double shifts if more schools aren’t built in the area.

“I’m mixed, because having a lower class size is certainly good for the children and good for the teacher,” Mr. Estabrook said. “I just don’t think there is enough room in the state of Florida to accommodate that.”

Mr. Dorn said Pasco County has received enough state funding to implement the law, but adding classroom space to make room for more growth and even smaller classes will require help from local taxpayers. The district is asking voters to approve a local penny sales-tax increase next month to build or renovate 16 schools.

In Broward County, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, where several thousand new students enroll every year, spokesman Joe Donzelli said schools are cramped by growth and the smaller classes. “We’re seeing schools go back to the days where every bit of space that can be used for instruction is being converted into classroom space,” he said.

The 271,000- student Broward system has eliminated an assignment policy that allowed students to attend any school outside their neighborhoods as space allowedmainly due to the class-size limits, Mr. Donzelli said.

Growing Resistance

Complications at the local level are the main ammunition for opponents of the class-size law. Gov. Bush, a Republican, has said the law drains the state budget and could distract from efforts to improve student achievement.

About half of Gov. Bush’s proposed $1 billion K-12 education budget increase for fiscal 2005 would go toward extra teachers needed to meet the class-size limits. That’s added to the roughly $500 million the state is spending already on the program.

“This is money that could be used to increase teacher compensation, provide professional-development opportunities for teachers, or purchase instructional equipment,” said Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Mr. Bush.

Rep. Kilmer, who wants to scale back the class-size law, noted that the state also must develop a preschool program by next year, required under another new voter-initiated law. “Our commitment is very, very strong to the beginning years of a student, and that’s not going to change,” she said. “It doesn’t require a constitutional amendment to do that.”

Mr. Filer of the class-size coalition rejects those arguments.

“They want to sell it as an overreach” that takes away from higher teacher salaries, he said of the critics. “If they were interested in salaries, they would have done that a long time ago.”

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who as a state senator started Florida’s class-size campaign, has introduced a bill in Congress to provide grants to states for such programs.

Mr. Filer argued Florida’s classes are too large: “There’s a problem statewide, or [the initiative] wouldn’t have passed.”

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