Politics

After a dozen years, Florida class-size foes may finally prevail

Backed by school districts that struggle annually to meet the strict caps, the Florida Legislature is poised to end penalties for school districts when classes get too big.
Backed by school districts that struggle annually to meet the strict caps, the Florida Legislature is poised to end penalties for school districts when classes get too big.

For the eighth time in 12 years, Florida lawmakers are looking to roll back voters’ wishes for smaller class sizes.

Backed by school districts that struggle annually to meet the strict caps, the Legislature is poised to end penalties for school districts when classes get too big. Instead, fines would apply when schools don’t reach the counts as a campus-wide average.

It’s a goal that class-size opponents have long sought. They have argued that classes would remain small, while also saving money and avoiding the pitfalls of shifting children when their numbers exceed an arbitrary level.

The House bill (HB 665) faced only token opposition on the House floor: three Democrats voted against it, including Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “I’ve heard from literally hundreds of parents, and they’re upset about it,” he said during debate. “It’s one more time we’re going to say class size doesn’t matter at the classroom level.”

But a different message prevailed.

“The efforts to technically comply with class size end up not being in the best interest of children,” said sponsor Rep. George Moraitis Jr., R-Fort Lauderdale, saying districts have created more classes not governed by the amendment just to make it work. “It really has to be reasonable and make sense.”

Such language has infused attempts to undo the amendment’s strictest requirements since the start, angering supporters. They’re “making a mockery of the Florida Constitution,” Miami-Dade Republican activist Luz Gonzalez said.

Class-size history

Florida’s class-size battle began decades before voters ever went to the polls. Districts labored to keep up with rapid growth, and classes ballooned to unmanageable proportions. Forty kids to a room was common.

When the Legislature failed to respond, Floridians petitioned to decide the matter for themselves.

“Tallahassee has had 20 years to do something about this, and they haven’t done anything,” then-state Sen. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat, said after the state Supreme Court approved the 2002 ballot language.

Voters narrowly adopted the amendment to limit kindergarten through third-grade core classes to 18 children, fourth through eighth grades to 22, and high school to 25.

Three south Florida counties with some of the worst crowding issues — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — provided the margin of victory. Thirty-nine counties opposed the amendment. And key Republican leaders, from then-Gov. Jeb Bush on down, fretted that the cost would “blot out the sun” and launched the first efforts to undercut it.

Even as the constitutional amendment required lawmakers to adopt laws enacting the class-size limits, lawmakers also filed resolutions to ask voters to repeal the limits, or at least limit them to kindergarten through third grade.

The proposals failed, resurfaced in 2004, and failed again.

So lawmakers changed tactics. While the Department of Education detailed how classes were shrinking and asked for $1.9 billion for new construction, the House introduced the “65 percent solution.”

Unsuccessful in other states, the idea was to require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of operational funds for classroom-related instruction. In exchange, districts would count class size as a district average.

The House passed the bill, but senators killed it on a 20-20 vote.

They moved on.

Next came a proposal to give schools flexibility within the classroom caps if students arrive after October counts. That’s what school leaders said they needed.

Some legislators insisted on a constitutional fix, though.

“If there’s no small bit of flexibility in local control provided, it would seem to me that school districts will live in fear of the 19th student showing up in a neighborhood and that causing either disruption or a lawsuit,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in the lead-up to that 2010 vote.

The referendum to revise the mandate to school-wide averages won 183,000 more votes than the original initiative, and 54.5 percent of the total. In 2002, that would have been good enough.

But lawmakers had changed the rules for constitutional amendments. Now, 60 percent was required: The GOP majority had done in its own proposal.

Fixing the problem

Even that failure didn’t stop lawmakers.

One year after the voters balked, the Legislature redefined hundreds of courses as electives exempt from the caps. It also offered flexibility for students who arrive after the fall count, the same idea that died in 2008.

Two years later, lawmakers allowed “schools of choice” to abide by school averages. Within short order, districts had more than 1,900 “schools of choice.”

Despite these moves, some districts still found it cheaper to pay fines than meet strict class size.

That money was redistributed to districts that complied. Some superintendents, including those in Broward and Miami-Dade, convinced their local delegation to press for further changes.

Others, such as Hillsborough’s influential MaryEllen Elia, argued that the mandate was clear. She held sway with a different group of lawmakers, who resisted the south Florida forays.

Still, the cogs were in motion.

Florida TaxWatch kept the issue alive with white papers criticizing the amendment.

“People don’t simply want smaller classes,” CEO Dominic Calabro said. “They want better outcomes.”

Then, prepping for a likely presidential run, Jeb Bush rejoined the conversation.

“We have a Class Size Amendment in our Constitution that has nothing to do with student learning,” Bush told a crowd of mostly Republican lawmakers during a February education summit in Tallahassee. “It was done for a political purpose.”

He proposed an alternative:

“Why not change the Class Size Amendment and give the monies that are now going to lower the number of students in a class to pay teachers for a job well done?”

The echoes came through in the House debate on penalties, with members saying districts should keep their money for improvements rather than paying fines for noncompliance.

Failure to comply

The endless onslaught against the class-size amendment slowly has won over some of the mandate’s original backers.

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said the teachers union isn’t thrilled with the latest proposal, which sailed through the House. A Senate version (SB 818) is also on course for passage. But a section requiring noncompliant schools to notify their advisory councils makes it “a little more palatable,” she said.

“The bottom line is school districts aren’t complying anyway,” McCall said. “This at least puts the public spotlight on the schools, so parents can stand up and put the pressure on the district to do what’s right for children.”

Nathan Howe, an algebra teacher at Pasco Sunlake High, said he has more students in his classes now than five years ago. He wasn’t too concerned.

Smaller classes help, Howe said, “but if you don’t have kids that want to learn, even if you have 15 students, it’s pointless.”

Not everyone feels that way.

Tara Penick did not support the 2002 amendment. The Pasco County mom had a son in a “vibrant” fifth-grade class of 35.

“I believed teachers were perfectly capable of teaching classes with higher numbers,” she said.

With teacher evaluations more closely tied to student outcomes, Penick has changed her mind.

“I believe the more students a teacher has, the less they’re going to be able to touch everyone’s needs,” she said.

David Galloway, a Jackson County fifth-grade teacher and union leader, said teachers lose teaching time to class management as student numbers rise.

Schools need flexibility in setting class sizes, Galloway said. But running roughshod over the voters’ will isn’t acceptable, he continued.

“It became law because they were packing our classrooms,” he said. “I’m sorry you don’t like the law. But here we are.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or follow @jeffsolochek on Twitter. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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