A House bill giving Florida school districts more flexibility in meeting class-size limits has yet to pass, but that may not stop the Duval County School Board from setting its own rules.
The board is considering a recommendation by Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to define class size limits by school average, rather than on a class-by-class basis.
"The proposal would be to make class size at the school average...and accept any penalty,” he told school board members Tuesday during a budget workshop.
Under the state's current law, districts are penalized for each classroom over the specified limit. In pre-kindergarten through third grade that limit is 18 students to a class. Fourth through eighth grade classes are allowed up to 22 students. In high school, the limit is 25 students per class in core curriculum areas such as math, science and English language arts.
A district with classrooms out of compliance with the mandate can face a fine of up to $3,000 for each student over the limit.
Under Vitti’s proposal, core classes would be allowed to have up to five students more than the state-required limit. The measure would also reduce elective class sizes, including foreign languages and physical education, to between 35 and 38 students.
Vitti said, with that in mind, the district could commit to keeping about 90 percent of its classrooms in compliance with state requirements, resulting in a $1.4 million penalty. That amounts to significantly less than the $5 million he estimated it would take to staff and shift classrooms into state compliance.
“That also frees up some dollars for us to spend on some other initiatives,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the first time a school district has made a conscious decision not to comply the state mandate in the name of saving district dollars.
Last year, Brevard County School District officials received widespread criticism for opting to pay about $170,000 in penalties for violating the state’s class-size requirements instead of the estimated $3.2 million it would have cost to fully comply with the rule.
Similarly, Duval County came under heat in the 2012-13 school year when only 81 percent of its classrooms were in compliance with the mandate. The district was penalized $7 million but after adjustments allowed under the law, the district ultimately paid $1.5 million in fines.
This year, 95 percent of Duval County Public School classrooms are compliant with state limits, but Vitti said the effort to achieve it came at cost to both the district and students.
“By going from 80 to 95 (percent) we created a considerable amount of disruption by moving kids and stacking classes,” he said. “I would say it was more the disruption and not worth the cost of being at 95.”
With the $1.4 million penalty taken into account, Vitti said the district would likely save about $3 million next year by committing to just 90 percent compliance.
Vitti and other school board members said they anticipate some pushback over the move.
“Because this law has been in place for so many years, the parents I run across, regardless of grade level, pretty much think that everything was class-size. When they hear this, you’re going to have a storm on your hands,” School Board Member Fred Lee of District 2 told Vitti.
Lee and other members also questioned which courses would be considered core classes and which would be considered electives.
Under the state’s law, class-size limits don’t apply to advanced placement, International Baccalaureate and other accelerated courses, so those courses could see as many as 38 students in a class.
“You may want to clarify categories of electives because telling a parent that they’re going to have 38 students in a physics class is not going to sit well versus 45 in a P.E. class,” Lee said.
Vitti said the number of students in a class would likely be contingent on the number of class offerings available in each course. For example, Fletcher High School offers a wide variety of electives but only a few classes per elective. Conversely, Mandarin High School offers a smaller variety of electives but more classes for students to enroll in.
“That allows them to have smaller class sizes but less overall offerings,” Vitti said.
Providing fewer electives choices at some schools and reducing the number of periods in a day at the district's higher performing schools were also options explored by the board.
"If you want a plethora of those languages, then two things are going to happen," Lee said. "First is, you're going to have class sizes that are larger because we only have this amount of money to cover these six (classes) and I think we've got to start having these discussions with our community."
Board members also raised questions about how the district’s intentional shift in class-size compliance would affect students in remedial and kindergarten through second-grade classes, where large class sizes can make classroom management particularly difficult for teachers.
“Have we considered focusing on really mitigating class size at the K-2 level?” asked School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch.
Vitti said the district’s biggest challenges in meeting class-size requirements were at the elementary level.
“I’d rather us commit to the core class size requirements for our lower performing (students), our enrichment reading or enrichment math classes where kids are below grade-level,” he said.
Vitti has noted before that most of the district’s middle schools and high schools are already exempt from the state’s most rigid class-size requirements because they are considered “schools of choice,” since they offer magnet and accelerated programs. Currently, schools under that designation are judged and penalized by the state based on their school average.
A house bill introduced earlier this year would expand that flexibility to all public schools in the state. It is currently awaiting review in the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.