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Florida State Legislators Re-Examine Class-Size Mandate

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For the past few years, the state’s class-size amendment has been a bone of contention among school officials as rules on class-size limits have become more rigid and penalties more hefty.But a new bill passed by a House subcommittee this week could change that.
Tuesday, the state House Choice and Innovation subcommittee voted 12 to 1 in favor of HB319 shifting the way class-size compliance is calculated. Instead of judging compliance on a class-by-class basis, the bill would  allow district’s to use their school-wide average.  

Under the current law, districts are penalized for each classroom over the mandated 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.

Compliance can be costly and time-consuming, school officials say.

“You know common sense will tell you that if you have that 19th [elementary school] child showing up, to go hire another teacher is probably not the right idea. It wouldn’t make sense,” said State Board of Education Chair Gary Chartrand, who supports the new bill.

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti also said he is in favor of the new proposal, calling it a “step in the right direction.”

“I think it will limit a lot the logistical challenges of making class size and it will put more funding in our budget for other purposes,” he said.
The bill is also a step backward, in a sense. The class-size amendment was first passed in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the state began to judge compliance at a classroom level.

From 2003 until 2006, compliance was based on district-wide averages, and in 2006, that changed to the average at each district school.

Currently, charter schools are still allowed to use their school-wide averages.

However, each classroom over limit within traditional public schools can cost its district a penalty of up to $3,000 per student.

Duval County Public Schools was initially penalized about $7 million last year for being 19 percent out of compliance.

Under the law, fines paid by districts not in compliance with the law are redistributed to districts in compliance. Once those funds are distributed to all the complying districts, the remaining balance is redistributed to the other districts.

Eventually, about $5.5 million was restored to Duval County last year, so the district ultimately paid $1.5 million in penalty fees.

Earlier this month, Vitti said the district is about 95 percent compliant this year and faces only about $700,000 in fees, which will likely decrease.

The new House subcommittee bill would prevent harsher penalties from taking effect next year.

But Vitti said to be fully compliant with the class-size amendment this year, the district would have had to pay an estimated $18 million in costs for new teachers and space.

“The frustration in my mind regarding class-size is it’s never been fully funded,” he said. “I think everyone agrees that class-size can make a difference when you’re educating students, but there’s no research to clearly indicate that class-size does lead to student achievement.”

Chartrand said the new bill, which will go before two other House committees over the next few weeks, would provide a more common sense approach to class-size compliance.

“If you move it over to the average per school it gives you a little bit of flexibility.”

A brief history of the class?size amendment

In 2002, an amendment to the Florida Constitution setting limits on the number of public school students
in core classes (math, English, science, etc.) is approved by Florida citizens.

In 2003, the state legislature enacts a law to implement the amendment by requiring the number of students in each classroom to be reduced by at least two students per year beginning in the 2003?04 school year, until each classroom's maximum number of students fell within legal guidelines.

The implementation was broken into three phases:

In 2003?04, 2004?05 and 2005?06, districts were required to comply at the district level.

In 2006?07 and 2008?09, district had to comply at the school level (In 2009, the state Legislature decided to extend the school level formula for an additional year to include 2009?10.).

In 2010?11 and subsequent years, districts were required to comply at the classroom level.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.