NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Class size implementation still a hot potato issue for Legislature

Feb 12, 2009



THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE… ….Parents and teachers hoping for smaller classes in schools across the state may have to wait a little bit longer with lawmakers considering measures that would delay a constitutional mandate for elementary school classes of no more than 18 children.

In 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment that said by the start of the 2010 school year, classes for kindergarten through third grade would max out at 18 students; classes for fourth grade through eighth grade would not exceed 22 students; and in high school, classes would be capped at 25 students.

So far, schools have been able to phase in the decreases, but the state’s budget woes have not made it easy. More than $57 million was cut from the schools budget last month that was specifically earmarked for class size reductions. And lawmakers will likely have to continue slicing away at public school dollars in next year’s budget. Lawmakers have estimated that the state could start the next fiscal year $5 billion down from where it was on July 1, 2008.

And now, with the state’s fiscal outlook remaining dreary, lawmakers are questioning whether it can fund schools to a level where they can fully implement the class size reductions by the start of the 2010 school year.

“We’re going to be addressing class size and we’re going to be entertaining all sorts of bills,”said Rep. John Legg, R- Port Richey, during a meeting Wednesday of the House PreK-12 Education Appropriations Committee. “I would suggest that this is a real problem and I don’t think there is a single person on this committee or in the Legislature that doesn’t realize the problems we’re going to be facing.”

Rep. Dwight Bullard, D- Miami, said if the amendment isn’t implemented, the idea of having larger classes for students “personally scared” him. But he also said that if more money had been spent over the years on schools, classes would already be smaller.

“If education was properly funded, this wouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

John Newman, a budget adviser for the Department of Education, declined to tell lawmakers on the committee Wednesday how they should handle the combination of budget problems and the class size mandate, simply saying that by 2010, “there is a constitutional entitlement to be served in a certain size class.

“People clearly believe small class sizes are helpful,” Newman said.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the state’s teachers union wants school districts to have a certain amount of flexibility in implementing the class size amendment, so that if a new student moved into a district and caused a class to go from 18 to 19 students, the school would not be penalized.

However, the FEA still wants to see the class size reductions fully implemented so that at the beginning of the year, schools at least can meet the constitutional requirements. The state’s fiscal crisis should not delay that, he added.

“We’re kind of looking at some people using an economic crisis to get something out of the constitution that they never really wanted to see there in the first place,” Pudlow said. “We look at the class provisions as something that voters wanted, teachers wanted. It’s good for kids. It’s good for parents and let’s fully fund it and let’s see how it works in terms of teachers being able to manage classrooms and achievement.”