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Election Primer: Class-Size Amendment 8 Is a Reasonably Multi-Edged Sword

| October 21, 2010

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Amendment 8 would relax some of the class-size rules that have gradually come into effect in Florida since 2002. There are advantages and disadvantages to Amendment 8, depending on which way you look at it.

If you’re a staunch advocate of strict class-size limits, you’re against Amendment 8. If you’re an advocate for class-size rules, but also in favor of giving school principals some flexibility over how to implement those class sizes, you can live with Amendment 8, and would even favor it enthusiastically, as it would save your local school district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

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But it’s not quite that simple. The Legislature was supposed to provide the dollars necessary to make it possible for every district and every school to comply with the strict class size limits voters approved in 2002. The Legislature has not done so. Districts and schools have a problem with class size because they’re short of money—not because they don’t like smaller classes.

Amendment 8 would make it easier to comply with class-size regulations, by loosening those regulations to a degree. Amendment 8, if approved, would also send a message to the Legislature: It’s Ok if you don’t fund education as you were supposed to, Amendment 8 implies; the rules can always be bent to accommodate your stinginess. Naturally, Amendment 8 was proposed by a state legislator, because the Legislature wants to be off the hook on strict class-size limits. The strict limits it’s interested in are limits on education spending.

For schools and parents, therefore, Amendment 8 is a double-edged sword: it would relieve financial and administrative pressures on school districts and on individual schools, it would enlarge classes somewhat (but not by much), and it would reduce the budget shortfalls districts have been facing in hard economic times. But it would also give the Legislature a pass on its responsibilities toward education.

In the short term, Amendment 8 makes sense for school districts facing economic difficulties. In the long term, Amendment 8 is an attack on the notion of smaller class sizes.

That said, the original class-size amendment, in 2002, was never based on evidence—there is no reliable evidence showing that classes of 18 students as opposed to, say, 25, learn better. There’s evidence that smaller class sizes are generally better than larger class sizes. But there is no hard-and-fast rule about what those sizes should be: there is no consistent evidence showing that your child will learn better in a class of 18 as opposed to a class of 20, or 24. Teachers like the class-size amendment to remain as strict as possible because smaller class sizes means more teachers and fewer lay-offs—not because smaller class sizes have a proven record of producing better students.

In other words, Florida voters in 2002 approved the class-size amendment because it sounded logical. But its hard numbers were not evidence-based. Amendment 8 may very well be seen as a corrective to the 2002 amendment, bringing more than fiscal compromise to the table. It also brings a little common sense to the class-size equation, and returns some authority to school principals, and presumably teachers, who know best how to divide their students.

A little background and some details:

Eight years ago 52.4 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that required public schools to limit class sizes and the Legislature to provide the money necessary to meet that mandate.

The amendment was to be implemented in three phases over eight years. In the early years, district-wide averages would be accepted, with hard, class-by-class averages imposed only in elementary schools up to grade 3, where size couldn’t exceed 18 students.

The next phase required grades 4 through 8 not to exceed 22 students, and that averages be in place school-wide. In other words, if the school-wide average matched those numbers (even if there were 24 students in one class and 20 in another), the district was in compliance.

The final phase, implemented this year, required that the strict limits be imposed class-by-class, including a 25-student limit in the upper grades. No averages. No exceptions, at least in those classes where the limits apply.

Those limits apply in almost all the lower, elementary classes, but only in core subjects in the higher grades, such as English, math, science and social sciences. It does not apply to gym, art or many elective classes. It also does not apply to virtual classes in any subject, including core subjects.

Most school districts, including Flagler County, have met class-size requirements, at great cost. The Miami Herald reported in March that the state spent $16 billion over eight years to comply with the amendment, most of that in teacher salaries. Another $350 million was needed for compliance this school year. Despite state infusions of money, local districts have to add some of their own. The Flagler County school district estimates the recurring cost of compliance locally will be $900,000 a year.

Districts that don’t comply with the limits pay stiff penalties.

The state school board association, including the Flagler school board, have reluctantly complied with the amendment. Now they’re behind Amendment 8, which would do the following:

The strict class-by-class limits would be lifted. The way the class-size average is calculated would also change.

In kindergarten through grade 3, for example, the largest allowable individual class size would rise from 18 to 21. But the average class sizes would have to remain at 18. If, for example, a school had 15 classes in kindergarten through grade 3, the total average size of those 15 classes could not exceed 18 students. So there could be 21 students in one class, 18 in another, 15 in a third, and so on. There could not be 21 students in every single one of those classes. There would have to be far fewer than 21 students in one class if another had the maximum allowable of 21.

The same calculations would apply in higher grades. In grades 4 through 8, the current requirement is that every class in core subjects have no more than 22 students. School-wide averages don’t apply. That would change. The most a class could have would be 27 students. But the school-wide average for those classes would remain at 22.

In grades 9 through 12, the class-size limit is currently 25. That would become the school-wide average limit, but in individual classes, the number of students could reach 30.

None of those numbers are unreasonable. None of the averages in play are unreasonable. But just as there is no evidence showing that strict class sizes have any effect on academic performance, there is no evidence showing that by giving the Legislature a pass on funding, it will do better next time school districts need money.

Amendment 8 is a favor to the Legislature and to school districts. It’s also a concession to more rational calculations of class-size limits, which may well have been too draconian when voters approved them in 2002. But for Amendment 8 to pass, it will have to get a 60 percent majority. That’s a tall order. School districts are budgeting under the assumption that the amendment will fail. Which is to say that voters—the same voters who want lower taxes—are poised to reassert a financial obligation the state and school districts are not quite capable of meeting short of making cuts elsewhere.

In the end, Amendment 8 is not just a double-edged sword. It’s more like a multi-edged sword.

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