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Debate over class-size limits far from over

Even though Floridians voted down a measure to ease class-size requirements on Tuesday, the debate isn't done.

Many school leaders, who must implement the 2002 class-size amendment daily, continue to clamor for flexibility. Those school boards that face possible financial penalties for failure to comply stand ready to fight the fines with legal action.

Even some key supporters of smaller class sizes say more local discretion is needed. Without such changes, though, the mandate stays the same. And school district leaders say they'll do their best to meet the rules, no matter how tough.

"Class size is the law," said Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "We're going to follow it."

So what's next for class size? Several key questions remain.

The state took its class-size count in October. What's happening with that?

State and district officials are reviewing the data for accuracy. The Department of Education should announce which districts complied by the end of November. Districts that failed will have a chance to appeal before penalties are assessed, most likely in February. About 15 districts, including big ones like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, are not expected to be in full compliance.

Does the state have to impose penalties?

No. The commissioner of education can, along with the State Board of Education, waive fines for districts deemed to have made every effort to comply even if they fall short.

What happens if the fines are assessed?

"The school boards are locked and loaded and ready to sue if they get fined," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer who works with both the Florida Education Association and the Florida School Boards Association. He argues that the Legislature created onerous penalties but did not properly provide funding so districts could meet the mandate. Any fines collected would go to districts that met class-size rules. Elia said districts that worked to meet the requirements deserve the money.

What's so tough about meeting the rules anyway?

"It's complicated just making sure we don't put the 19th kid in a class," said Pinellas assistant superintendent Jim Madden. Each core class is capped at 18 for grades K-3; 22 for Grades 4-8; and 25 for high school. New students don't necessarily fit classroom openings, and accommodating them can be challenging for schools — and students, who might have to switch classes or take courses they do not need. "Principals end up doing more managing than leading," Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.

Some legislators had hoped voters would pass Amendment 8 Tuesday, which would have used schoolwide classroom averages, rather than individual class caps. But it fell short of the 60 percent needed for passage.

What kind of changes are school officials seeking?

Elimination of the penalties, for one. The creation of some discretion in dealing with additional students who enroll midyear. Some would even argue the amendment already allows for schoolwide averages rather than classroom caps, since the Legislature uses this standard for charter schools.

Can lawmakers do this without changing the Constitution?

People on both sides of the debate say yes. They point to the state Supreme Court opinion that allowed the original amendment onto the 2002 ballot as a guideline. The court stated that the amendment gives the Legislature "latitude in designing ways to reach the class size goal articulated in the ballot initiative."

Will lawmakers change the rules?

Statutory fixes are looking likely. Sen. Don Gaetz, who co-sponsored Amendment 8, said, "Ron Meyer believes there's substantial flexibility, flexibility that I never believed the teachers union thought was fair. All I can say is, I plan to study Ron's analysis very carefully." For example, Meyer has repeatedly said the class-size numbers are goals, not caps, allowing lawmakers to give principals some flexibility. The harsh penalties for not meeting class size are a creation of the Legislature, Meyer says, and can also be changed. Added Sen. Steve Wise, chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee: Meyer "is bright and he usually wins. I think we need to sit down with him and say, 'We've got a problem and you guys know it. How do we fix it?' "

Who will make sure the schools follow class-size rules in the meantime?

Not the Department of Education. State law allows the department to take just one compliance count annually. That occurred in October. Talk of a February class-size review is not correct.

Can parents or teachers hold their schools accountable?

That's unclear. Meyer said he doesn't see judges forcing school districts to move children if a class is over its limit. But the fear exists that someone might sue a superintendent or school board member for failure to uphold the Constitution, said Dennis Alfonso, the Pasco School Board's attorney. "If nothing is done, you're going to see some lawsuits," Meyer guessed.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Debate over class-size limits far from over 11/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 10:37pm]

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