Class size requirements on table

The state's teachers union is looking at ways to loosen the restrictions.

Associated Press
Published January 23, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - The state teachers union Tuesday proposed ways to loosen class size-reduction requirements without asking voters to amend Florida's Constitution again.

The Florida Education Association offered an increase of up to five students to accommodate growth after the school year starts if other options, like transferring students, don't work. The teachers union, which helped pass the class-size citizen initiative in 2002, presented the plan to a legislative committee.

Associations representing school boards and superintendents suggested allowing reading coaches, physical education teachers and other noncore teachers to be counted in calculating student-teacher ratios. Those ideas, though, could result in some bigger classes than the union plan would allow.

"There was never any intent, I believe, in this constitutional amendment to reach some of the absurd results that some people have suggested," said House 21st Century Competitiveness Committee Chairman David Simmons, R-Maitland.

It doesn't make sense - and could cost the state millions of dollars - to hire a new teacher and create a new class if a limit is broken because one or two new students enroll in the middle of the school year, Simmons said.

Simmons and the union's lawyer agree some leeway is possible because the class size amendment doesn't directly impose the limits. Instead, it requires the Legislature to make adequate provision to ensure a sufficient number of classrooms by the 2010 school year.

The limits are 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school.

Implementing legislation also requires a phase-in period. First, the limits had to be met on district average and later school average basis. Individual classroom compliance will be required for the first time in the 2008-09 school year.

The law also imposes financial penalties on school districts that violate the limits. A portion of money designated for hiring teachers and other costs must be shifted, instead, to building new class space.

Repealing the penalty drew unanimous support from the teachers union, Florida Association of District School Superintendents, which had opposed the class-size amendment, and the Florida School Boards Association, which had been neutral in 2002.

"Many times you don't need another classroom, you need another teacher," said school boards lobbyist Ruth Melton.

The superintendents and boards suggested other penalties including withholding state lottery funds.

The committee, though, is not considering another proposed state constitutional amendment, Simmons said. In the past, the Legislature has rejected attempts led by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to put such an amendment on the ballot.

Bush opposed the citizen initiative, arguing that size limits would cost too much - up to $27-billion over eight years. The Legislature has appropriated only about $10-billion, though, for the first six years.

The rejected amendments would have required only school average compliance.