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Class-Size Limits: How Flagler Schools Are Scrambling to Fit in Costly Strait-Jacket

| June 3, 2010

Illustration by Jared Chapman

Little-known fact: When Florida voted on a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes in 2002, a majority of Flagler voters were opposed. The amendment got 49 percent in Flagler. In the state, the amendment passed with just 52 percent of the vote.

Flagler voters were right. The class-size amendment, which has gradually imposed artificial but strict limits on class sizes in elementary, middle and high school, is making it more difficult for teachers and administrators to run their schools and stay within budget—without appreciable academic benefits.

This fall, Flagler Superintendent Janet Valentine told the school board, the district will have to spend $656,000 (the equivalent of 13 full-time teachers’ pay, with benefits) to comply with the latest demands of the amendment just in elementary schools.

Yet when the school board held the first of two public hearings on Tuesday on the class-size amendment, no one spoke. The hearings are required of local boards when they make changes to the way schools comply with the amendment. They are also a chance for the board to hear innovative ideas on implementing the amendment and to explain why those changes are taking place, what they’re costing—and how students and parents may be surprised, inconvenienced, upset, or pleased by the required changes.

Limits were imposed more generally first, through district-wide or school-wide averages. This fall, the Flagler school district, like 66 other districts across the state, will be forced to limit class sizes to the following ratios: Pre-K to 3rd grade classrooms may not exceed 18 students per teacher. Classes in grades 4 through 8 may not exceed 22 students, and in 9 through 12, they may not exceed 25 students per teacher. Those limits apply to any English, math, science, social studies or foreign language classroom.

The district is under financial constraints as it is. The class-size regulations are making matters worse. Next year, the district expects to add 300 students to its total. That would normally require hiring about 15 to 18 teachers. Instead, the district would have to hire 31 teachers to comply with the class-size requirements. It’s not necessarily going to do that.

On Tuesday, Valentine outlined the sort of changes you can expect in your children’s schools come fall:

Associate teachers. Rather than hire a slew of additional teachers to fill additional classrooms, which the district cannot afford, a new type of teacher will likely be hired to co-teach with established teachers in classrooms that exceed the minimum number of students allowed, thus reducing the student-teacher ratio in that classroom. Associate teachers will be hired at a lower pay–$26,000 a year instead of the starting pay of $38,000. Associate teachers would be certified, as are regular teachers–they couldn’t plop out of community college after two years and have the job–but they would not have to be certified in the specific discipline they’d be assigned to.

In some schools, that will cut costs of complying with the amendment in half. At Bunnell Elementary, for example, eight additional teachers are needed to comply. If those additional teachers were hired, they’d also need their own classrooms. Bunnell doesn’t have the space. The school would have to put up portables, at a cost of $30,000 each, plus monthly maintenance. Add it all up. It comes out to $586,000 for the year. Instead, by hiring associate teachers and not having to expand to portable classrooms, the district can spend $262,000 and still comply with class-size requirements. Wadsworth Elementary would need six associate teachers, Rymfire would need four, Belle Terre two, and Old Kings none.

Multi-grade classrooms: In some cases, students from two successive grades—for example, second graders and third graders—may end up in the same classroom, in schools where space is available. The classroom would be taught as a “blended” classroom, with a curriculum fit for those who are either ahead or behind in their particular grade. Blended classrooms are nothing new: some districts use them whether they have budget constraints or not, as a pedagogic tool that benefits some students.

I-Flagler: That’s the virtual school, or school by Internet, that an increasing number of students are flocking to. Many parents are familiar with the Florida Virtual School, which enrolls tens of thousands of students each semester. I-Flagler is its local equivalent, run locally. The district aims I-Flagler at middle and high school students. Some students are more comfortable attending school online. Guidance counselors will help students decide if they’re a good fit for virtual schooling. The benefit to the district is that it lowers the number of students in actual classrooms, thus helping with compliance with the class-size amendment.

To prevent any sense that students taking classes online may feel cut off from the school setting, every middle and high school will have its own supervised computer lab, enabling students taking virtual classes to work there and have contact with teachers when necessary.

Extra periods in middle and high schools: Those schools will have the choice of paying teachers extra to teach an additional period during the school day. Doing so would add course and scheduling options for students, thus spreading out student numbers across a longer schedule, and presumably thinning out some classes—and bringing them under the class-size limit.

For all that, Valentine cautions: “We have not started filling positions at this point. There’s no doubt, we have held out on filling positions until we really can see how tight this budget was going to be.” In other words, as further bleak news comes down from Tallahassee, such as the impact the oil spill will have on state revenue (it will severely reduce sales tax revenue, which underwrites school funding), further changes may be necessary.

Here’s another little-known, or forgotten, fact about the class-size amendment: It explicitly required, in the amendment’s words, that the “the Legislature, and not local school districts, to pay for the costs associated with reduced class size.” As Flagler’s experience shows, that part of the constitutional requirement has been largely ignored.

School board members remind voters that they have another chance to take a stand on the class-size amendment. This fall, a proposed amendment to the amendment will appear on the election ballot. Voters will be asked not to repeal the class-size amendment, but to allow school districts to make it slightly more flexible in order to lessen financial pressures of complying with it. Flagler voters had it right eight years ago. But more of them will have to have it right this time around, because for this amendment to pass, it must garner at least a 60 percent majority.

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3 Responses for “Class-Size Limits: How Flagler Schools Are Scrambling to Fit in Costly Strait-Jacket”

  1. Atilla says:

    People complained before the class size amendment and the dreaded FCAT that our children were not getting a good education. Has I recall things were happening like seniors unable to read, the over used jokes about young people not being able to make change without the cash register, and so on. Maybe strict class size limits are expensive, I have heard nothing that says it is not working on the results side and do not see another plan besides pushing more students through, which can only mean less face time with the teachers. What else do we have?

  2. H Peter Stolz says:

    The reason we have the class size dilemna is because teachers unions suported the ammendment – to do so raised membership by all those new dues paying teachers that would be required. To have a state constitutional ammendment regarding class size in the first place is ludicrous; the put specific student teacher ratios into a state ammendment is equally ridiculous. But then teachers have always been sacrosanct as motherhood and applepie. What has passed is water over the dam; we live by what the majority has decided – even if the majority wanted only to support the teachers unions that campaigned for passage.

    The suggestion of getting around the law by employing a “second rate” classroom teacher whose qualifications are not discussed in the article, is abhorrent and should be vigorously defeated by the teachers union and every parent of a school age child. Our kids don’t need to be taught by “almost” teachers.

  3. Janet Reilly says:

    Seriously, unions are to blame for class size and for the state of education in Florida???? That is crazy. I wish they were that powerful. Sounds like the usual scapegoating to me. Class size passed so narrowly because folks thought it sounded good but would be hard to accomplish. Sounds about right. We need to massage it like we do most of our solutions. Get to work-and stop blaming others. The students are waiting-and they need your individual attention. Trust me, I am there twice a week, in the classroom-with a certified MASTER teacher that could handle twice the kids. But she is smart enough to leverage resources in her parent circle, community etc. She is in the union, too.

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