Broward School Board discusses side effects of class-size compliance

A year ago, Broward’s inability to meet state class-size requirements was both embarrassing and costly: Almost half the school district’s classes had too many students, resulting in a state fine of $8.5 million.

This school year, Broward has made great strides in reducing its class sizes, with more than 87 percent of classes complying with the rules. But on Tuesday, School Board members tackled an uncomfortable question: How much of that progress was made by exploiting loopholes in state law?

At the heart of that question are the various types of classes that are exempt from class-size rules. Florida’s Department of Education doesn’t enforce student enrollment caps for Advanced Placement classes, “virtual” online courses, or classes that aren’t part of the state’s list of core curriculum courses.

When listening to school district staff deliver a rosy presentation on all the class-size progress, School Board member Donna Korn zeroed in on the size of AP classes, which she called a “red flag.”

At Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, for example, more than 60 AP classes have 30 or more students. At Cypress Bay High School in Weston, more than 90 AP classes have 30-plus students. Historically speaking, Korn said, Broward’s AP classes have never been that large.

“The AP students are the ones who paid a price for class-size reduction,” Korn said. “It’s a trend that concerns me.”

Under the class-size rules that apply to traditional core classes, the maximum number of students in a high school classroom is 25.

The popularity of AP classes has been steadily growing in Florida and nationally, as educators and families frequently see the classes as an opportunity to expose students to rigorous, college-level work — potentially earning college credit in the process. That increased interest in AP is likely part of the reason why Broward’s AP courses are increasingly jam-packed, but the fact that the classes don’t count against the district’s class-size performance appears to also be a factor.

Korn, a former English teacher at Western High School, said crowded AP courses could deprive students of the high-quality instruction they deserve, as overwhelmed teachers won’t have the time to lead complex classroom discussions or provide a more-detailed level of grading.

Broward Teachers Union President Sharon Glickman sounded a similar alarm, warning School Board members that smaller classes are directly linked to teacher recruitment and retention. Referring to AP students, Glickman asked, “Why should they get shortchanged?”

With School Board members taking up the issue at a non-voting workshop, no formal action was taken, but board members suggested they may want to adopt voluntarily class-size caps that could apply to AP classes or other classes not affected by state rules. Board members requested the district provide budget estimates showing how much a voluntary class-size cap would cost, and the issue will likely be discussed during the summer budget planning process.

Board members also asked about the use of virtual classes and academic classes that aren’t part of Florida’s “core” curriculum. The state requires high school students to take at least one online course, but at some schools principals have made certain courses, such as World History, available only online.

Board member Robin Bartleman questioned the existence of English classes such as American Literature or British Literature. Generally speaking, these are still English classes, but because they’re not part of Florida’s list of “core” classes, they don’t count toward Broward’s class-size calculations.

Marie Wright, executive director of Broward’s Core Curriculum Department, said such literature courses have been part of Broward’s offerings even before Florida voters approved the class-size constitutional amendment in 2002. The alternative English classes exist simply to give students more options, Wright said.

“To say necessarily that they have popped up as a class-size strategy, I don’t think is true,” Wright said.

After the board meeting, Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district is not exploiting loopholes to comply with the rules. Broward can’t hire as many teachers as it would like because of budget constraints, Runcie said, and those who are hired are often deployed to core subject areas first because meeting class-size rules is a priority.

“You can’t do everything,” Runcie said. “It’s not a function of loopholes, it’s a function of economics.”

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