Op-Ed

Florida violating class-size limits rules

MCT

If you’ve been in Florida long enough, you’ll remember the sales job used by political leaders to get voters to approve the Florida Lottery in 1986. The extra money would go, they pledged, strictly as enhancements for public education. What the state allocated for public education wouldn’t change and the lottery revenues would be additional money public schools could use to improve our schools.

Voters bought the argument and approved the lottery. Almost right away, the Legislature began cutting the amount of money allocated to public schools. Lottery money wasn’t used for enhancements; it was used to replace money lawmakers took from the education budget and used elsewhere. Voters were hoodwinked.

In 2002, a citizen initiative appeared on the ballot designed to lower class sizes in Florida public schools. This constitutional amendment was sharply opposed by Gov. Jeb Bush and leaders of the Florida Legislature and they campaigned mightily to defeat the measure. In the midst of his reelection campaign, Bush even told supporters — with reporters in the room — that he had a “devious plan” to deal with lowering class size if voters approved it.

Voters did just that, and political leaders have been trying to scrap the class-size limits ever since. They even asked voters to junk the requirements several elections later, but voters said no.

But just because those class-size limits are in the Florida Constitution doesn’t mean that lawmakers are adhering to them. Over the years, legislative leaders have weakened, ignored and swept under the rug much of what the voters approved.

Three years ago, lawmakers cut the number of “core” classes covered by the class-size limits by nearly two-thirds. Today, the class size requirements are a shell of what they were intended to be. The Florida Department of Education even gives districts guidance on how to circumvent the requirements in a class size frequently asked questions article on its website.

The Florida Education Association created a survey recently and asked our members for their stories about how the class size provisions of the constitution were being applied in their classroom. Over a 12-day period ending earlier this month, more than 1,600 teachers from 50 counties throughout the state responded.

Nearly 75 percent reported that at least one class they taught exceeded the constitutional caps for their grade levels — and half of those reported that their classes were more than five students over the mandated cap. Teachers from more than 30 counties said that their school district was paying the state fine instead of complying with the law. Many teachers reported that parents were complaining about their child’s class size.

And well they should. The voters understood what they were approving when they placed the class-size limits in the Florida Constitution. They knew what they were voting for several years later when they rejected the legislative leaders’ attempt to overturn those limits. They should be livid that the Legislature and the governor’s office have blatantly ignored their wishes and are essentially ignoring the highest law in the state.

How are districts circumventing the limits? One popular tactic is to “stack” one class at a particular grade level. The fine is lower if only one class doesn’t meet the requirement. So, if a school has five third-grade classes, four will have the state mandated limit of 18, but the fifth might have 30 students. That may limit the fine the district has to pay, but it doesn’t do much for the students in that large classroom — or their teacher. Schools are adding teachers to classes after the October official student count so that the school can say it’s in compliance, but after October they are well over the limit.

Teachers say that failure to follow the law makes it more difficult to reach and teach all students. They are concerned about the safety of their students and they say the larger class sizes lead to more misbehavior and inappropriate student interaction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We all should demand that elected officials end this charade and properly fund schools so that they can meet constitutional rules for class size. Let them know how you feel with your vote in the upcoming election.

Andy Ford is president of the Florida Education Association.

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