School Climate & Safety

Florida’s School-Crowding Woes Offer Fodder for Ongoing Debate

By Kerry A. White — September 24, 1997 2 min read

Press Floridians to put a price tag on the school crowding problem in their state, and they’ll sigh heavily and say it depends.

That’s because Florida’s governor, the state education commissioner, state lawmakers, and school groups are brandishing figures that are billions of dollars apart, and state officials’ assessments of classroom crowding range from schools having ample classroom space to an $11.1 billion construction backlog.

This despite a long summer of well-publicized meetings led by Gov. Lawton Chiles intended not only to reconcile those billion-dollar differences, but also to come up with a long-term solution to the state’s crowding problem.

Fueling the arguments is a new law requiring districts to count 75 percent of their portable classrooms and all music rooms, art rooms, and computer labs as permanent, regular classroom space.

The law, known as House Bill 2121, was passed on the last day of the legislative session last May. It eliminated much of the state’s need for new schools, at least on paper. It could shrink the total dollar estimate of school construction needs as low as $775 million. Details of the law’s implementation are still being ironed out, and likely will be made final during a special legislative session expected to be held before Thanksgiving.

‘Other People’s Money’

Sponsors of the measure, which also limits the size of new classrooms that districts build, said its intention is to curb wasteful spending on school construction.

“It’s always a question of more money--other people’s money. It’s time for schools to be frugal and functional,” said Rep. Stephen R. Wise, a Republican who chairs a key education committee. “Somehow, educational professionals have said you can’t learn in portable classrooms. Well, I know a lot of doctors, lawyers, and scientists who were schooled in portables.”

But since its passage, the law has been blasted by the Democratic governor and school officials.

“The bill is an attempt to hide the problem,” said Gary Landry, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association United, the state’s second-largest teachers’ union and an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, which assesses the state’s total school construction needs at $3.5 billion. “Everyone’s doing a lot of denying and finger-pointing, but the bottom line is, we’ve got overcrowding.”

However big a problem, the crowding itself stems from the more than 600,000 students who have poured into the state’s schools over the past 10 years. But an end may be in sight, as the number of students enrolling in public schools in Florida is expected to begin slowing down by 2002, according to the state education department. The projected slowdown is one of the reasons many lawmakers want to tame school construction spending.

Not a Permanent Classroom

Critics say the new law fails to take into account how portable classrooms can impede learning and strain core school facilities such as libraries, cafeterias, and bathrooms.

“Portables were never intended to be permanent,” said Dewitt Lewis, the principal of the 250-student Waldo Community School in Alachua County, where about one-third of the students attend classes in the school’s seven portable classrooms.

Mr. Lewis said the students who spend their school days in portables lack the same access to technology as their peers in the main school building, get wet moving to the lunchroom or library on rainy days, and are displaced during bouts of severe weather.


Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )