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Florida seeks to fit class sizes with reality
Even many backers of the state law see a need for flexibility.
By Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008
Ask Florida voters about the 2002 mandate to reduce school class sizes, and you'll likely get a response like Joanne Haymond's.
"I would stick with the class-size amendment and make them come up with the money," says Haymond, a 76-year-old grandmother from northwest Hillsborough County.
But ask the same voters about allowing schools to exceed the limits in emergency situations, and watch the reaction shift.
"You do what you've got to do," says Susan Beddow, a 22-year Pasco County teaching veteran. "I'm not going to close my door. But I'm not going to take the next 15, either."
Six years after the amendment narrowly won approval, an overwhelming majority of Florida voters say they still want smaller classes in public schools, according to a St. Petersburg Times survey. But the survey also indicates that nearly half of them are open to tweaking the mandate to make it more flexible, with another third undecided.
The findings come as some lawmakers are trying to lessen the financial burden of the class-size amendment, which requires schools to reduce class sizes to 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in Grades 4-8 and 25 students in high schools by the 2010-11 school year.
It's a cause made more urgent by declining state tax revenue that has threatened budget cuts across the board. Since putting class-size limits into law, the Legislature has spent about $5.1-billion in associated construction and operating costs. The projected cost next year, if nothing changes, is another $1-billion.
The poll result "tells me that we're right on target," said Rep. David Simmons, a Republican from Altamonte Springs who has unsuccessfully sought ways to dampen the amendment since its approval.
Simmons referred to a bill moving through the House Committee on 21st Century Competitiveness, which he chairs. That bill would require schools to conduct classroom counts each fall and then adjust all classes to meet the set limits.
If new students arrive after the count, pushing a class over the limit, a school could let the class exceed the cap by up to five, so long as the school's average class size does not go over the cap.
"The whole concept behind this is there is needed flexibility," Simmons said. "If a child moves in, what do you do? Break up the class? Then what happens when another child moves out and you're down to 18? There has to be some sanity in this process."
Unlike past, failed efforts, this one has the backing of teachers and school district leaders who have not supported other proposed changes.
"We've always thought that the class-size amendment has needed some flexibility," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which worked with Simmons on the bill's language. "For years, we have heard of something called the '19th student problem.' ... We are in favor of looking at a statutory change that would allow schools to deal with that kind of emergency situation."
The issue also has concerned the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Executive director Bill Montford said his group stands by the class-size amendment, but it sees the need to find a more reasonable way to accomplish its goals.
"We have to maintain the integrity of what the voters supported. The class-size amendment has been exceptionally popular. It has been well received, and it has worked," Montford said. "But we are in some extraordinary times now."
Simmons' proposal is one good way to achieve savings while meeting the voter mandate, Montford said.
But it's not the only option out there. And if there's a sticking point in efforts to massage the amendment, it could emerge from the varied approaches rising in Tallahassee's many venues.
The superintendent's group actually prefers a voter-approved fix to move the class-size limits permanently to a school average - where they are now - rather than going to classroom counts, Montford said.
That idea is moving through the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which can put initiatives on the ballot without legislative approval.
Some senators like that concept, too. But many have come to acknowledge, as the Times survey shows, that voters do not want to scale back the amendment in this way. So they've come up with another alternative - a one-year freeze on implementing the classroom counts, perhaps with the exception of the youngest grades.
Senate leaders have said that, depending on the scope, a freeze could save up to $600-million,
Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations Committee, did not rule out going with the House proposal. That's despite the concerns of Senate Education Committee Chairman Don Gaetz and others over whether the courts would agree with Simmons' method.
The main point, Wise said, is staying true to the amendment while also making it less expensive and cumbersome to implement. He figured that this bleak economic year offers perhaps the best chance to find such a solution without getting bogged down in politics.
"It's always a possibility that nothing will happen," Wise said. "But I will tell you, Rep. Simmons, House Schools and Learning Committe Chairman Joe Pickens and I are really close personal friends. I don't think it's going to get so out of kilter that we can't do it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.