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Class size starts with small down payment

Legislators allocate $1-billion for the first year of the program, hoping the costs will be less of a burden in the future.

Published May 31, 2003

Facing a mammoth task during tough economic times, Florida lawmakers this week opted for the least painful approach to class size reduction: Delay the costs by starting slowly.

The lawmakers said their $1-billion commitment for the coming year is all the state can afford. Critics, including U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, the former state senator who championed the class size amendment, said they ducked their responsibilities.

"They're putting it off until the end," Meek said. "What they did contribute is not even close to what the (state economists) said would be needed."

The $1-billion down payment is well short of the more than $3-billion the state said the program would cost in the first year. And there are seven years to go.

Meek has maintained that cutting class size would not cost anywhere near the $27.5-billion cited by the state. His estimate is closer to $8-billion.

Despite months of planning and debate, it remains unclear how, or whether, Florida will meet its constitutional obligation for shrinking class sizes. Lawmakers said they did the best they could.

"The voters voted for it from sound bites," said state Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Quincy, chairwoman of the House Education Committee. "They weren't asked, "How do you want us to do this?' They expect us to find the least painful way to get this done, and we did."

Kilmer agreed with Meek on two points: The final price tag is still a question mark, and the majority of the costs will come due later.

Legislators are counting on the economy to rebound, making class size reduction less onerous down the road.

In the first year, districts are expected to use the money to hire more teachers, buy portable classrooms and start some construction projects.

But that won't put much of a dent in the requirement.

"We're going to have to hire a lot more teachers if we're going to see that class size average drop," said John Long, superintendent of Pasco County schools. He said some of his principals have been "begging for portables. But we don't have them."

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in the crafting of a class size bill came when legislators agreed to start by reducing class size based on a districtwide average. That's more manageable than the classroom-by-classroom reductions called for by 2010.

Districts are being told to reduce class size by making the best use of the space they have. The law, for example, encourages them to rezone schools to fill any classrooms that are not being fully used.

"Use what you've got first, then we'll talk about more construction," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "This is just a framework for dealing with this. There will be continuing days of reckoning."

The Legislature's plan calls for reducing class size by a district average for two years, then by a school average for two years. The reductions then must get down to the classroom level.

"When we get to the school level, that's where the real dollars start to kick in," Kilmer said. "The costs are much greater then."

By 2010, the state Constitution limits class sizes to no more than 18 children in grades pre-K through 3, no more than 22 in grades 4-8 and no more than 25 in grades 9-12.

The amendment was approved by 52 percent of the voters in November. It was opposed by Gov. Jeb Bush, most of the Republican leadership in the Legislature and most school superintendents.

The class size law - all 100-plus pages of it - was stuffed full of issues affecting public schools.

Some clearly were related to class size reduction. Others, less so.

For instance, the law enables high school students to get standard diplomas in three years instead of four, so long as they take the necessary credits, including four English credits and three math credits at the algebra level or higher.

The law expands a voucher program, enabling low-income children to have portions of their private school tuition paid by the state. It also directs districts to encourage students to take courses via computer through the Florida Virtual School.

And one of Constantine's favorite features encourages school districts to form partnerships with businesses to establish schools at business sites.

One part of the law that got little attention requires Florida colleges of education to "guarantee the high quality of their graduates." If a teacher who graduates from the program is not sufficiently trained, he or she could return to the college for more preparation for free.

Meek, who has long been skeptical of the Legislature's commitment to complying with the class size amendment, pointed out that the governor and many of today's lawmakers won't be around to deal with the costs during the latter years of the phase-in.

"The message is that the people of Florida have to keep the pressure on the Florida Legislature to reduce class size," Meek said. "That hasn't changed."

[Last modified May 31, 2003, 01:45:14]

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