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Class limits raise anxiety
Districts fret over how to apply stricter class-size rules that start next year.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 5, 2008
TAMPA -- Just before winter break, nine students enrolled for classes at Cypress Creek Elementary. Two were in kindergarten, where the school is almost out of seats.
No one is panicking yet. But the writing is on the wall.
Next school year, Florida will strictly enforce class-size limits that prohibit schools from placing more than 18 students in a primary grade class.
So what happens when the 19th child arrives?
Does it turn a family away? Bus the child to a school with room, even if it's 20 miles away? Add a portable classroom and hire a teacher? Brace for tears when kindergarteners are shuffled around to rebalance classrooms?
Discussions of such dire-sounding options are playing out elsewhere in Hillsborough County and around the state.
Critics have warned of nightmare scenarios since voters in 2002 approved the controversial class-size limits. Republican leaders and school superintendents objected at the time. And ever since, the 19th child has been Exhibit A of the unintended consequences.
"There are a lot of 19th children in the typical school in Florida," says state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former superintendent in Okaloosa County and a leading Republican policymaker in education.
He predicts chaos. "There are going to be a lot of meetings in the cafeteria where angry parents are demanding to know why their children can't go to school in their neighborhood school."
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In recent years, few issues have polarized state politics like the class size amendment, which set ceilings of 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth, and 25 in high school.
Already, the state has spent about $10-billion hiring teachers and adding classrooms, according to the Department of Education, which projects a $23-billion cumulative price tag by the 2010-11 constitutional deadline for implementation.
Beyond that, there's the fear of the 19th child meltdown.
The amendment's original framers caution that both cost estimates and the 19th child argument have been overblown over the years.
"It doesn't necessarily need to be something that on the day that the 19th kid arrives the school goes into lock-down and frenzy," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the teachers union. "It is not an intractable problem."
Rather than trigger a crisis, Pudlow doesn't see a problem with a mid-year transfer that puts a school over the limit. He expects simply a good-faith effort to meet the requirement.
Critics have complained the amendment's wording doesn't allow such wiggle room. However, after failing to win legislative support to send the issue back to voters, the language is being viewed in a new light.
State Rep. David Simmons, an Orlando-area Republican involved in education policy in the House, believes the crisis over the 19th child results from the Legislature's "inflexible" approach to writing the law that carries out the amendment.
"Reading the constitutional amendment too strictly does lead to absurd results," says Simmons, a lawyer who has been reviewing the amendment. "We don't need to be creating two classrooms because one extra student is in there."
The Legislature's plan first required districts to meet the ceilings using districtwide counts, then school averages. It moves to class-by-class counts in the fall, two years before the constitutional deadline and penalizes districts that fail to comply.
This spring, Simmons is interested in seeking a change that would freeze the class-size numbers at the current schoolwide averages. He believes this can be accomplished without voter approval.
The amendment's supporters are open to flexibility that would avoid a logistical nightmare like the 19th child scenario. Yet they remain wary of efforts to water down the amendment.
"I envisioned school districts standing up to the state of Florida, which they have done a miserable job of doing," says U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who spearheaded the ballot initiative as a state senator.
It requires the Legislature to fully fund the initiative, which he says lawmakers have not done. If they had, Meek says, no one would be worrying about the 19th, 23rd or 26th child.
"That was never the intention of the class size amendment," he says.
* * *
At Sickles High School in northwest Hillsborough, the days of social studies classes with more than 30 students are gone. Today, Sickles has a few classes just over the required threshold, principal Jake Russell says, but they are balanced by smaller ones elsewhere.
To get ready for the full implementation next fall, 24 portables stand on the Sickles campus -- 10 more than last year. That should help the 2,700-student school meet the limits, until it gets relief from a new high school scheduled to open in 2009.
Like other local principals, Russell is asking students to think carefully about course decisions next year, especially when enrolling in advanced classes. It may be more difficult to change schedules in September.
He sees a mixed bag in the push for smaller class sizes.
"I think it's good for the students," Russell says of the smaller student-teacher ratios. "But if it limits their ability to take classes, it'll be too hard of a law."
In recent years, Hillsborough school officials have devoted increasing time to making the requirements work. State funding for class size reduction has paid for classroom additions at 83 campuses, costing almost $250-million.
Hillsborough came close to meeting the final requirements this year, school officials say. But they still have challenges, particularly at older schools with smaller classrooms.
And no one has answers for questions like the 19th child. For now, the district has put together a committee to study the issues -- and awaits guidance from the state.
"I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it," says Ken Otero, Hillsborough's deputy superintendent. "It's something that we're going to have to deal with."
What does the class size amendment require? In core-curricula classes, the maximum number of students who can be assigned to a teacher are 18 in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades four though eight, and 25 in grades nine through 12.
When does it take effect? The amendment requires full implementation by the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. But the Legislature set an earlier deadline in the law enacted to reduce class sizes. Lawmakers expected schools to meet the classroom-level requirement beginning in 2008-09.
When did this pass? Voters approved the class size amendment in November 2002.
Could it go back on the ballot? Anything is possible, but critics so far have been unsuccessful in efforts to return the class size amendment to voters for reconsideration.