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Lawmakers seek ways around class-size rules

TALLAHASSEE — Florida voters in November rejected relaxing constitutionally mandated limits on class sizes. So state lawmakers have taken matters into their own hands.

Tucked in the House and Senate budget plans is a provision tweaking the definition of the educational core curriculum, a move that would reduce by hundreds the number of courses under class-size restrictions.

The change is welcome news for cash-strapped school districts desperate for looser — read less expensive — class-size caps. But it has irked some Democrats and teachers who pushed through the 2002 constitutional amendment for smaller classes.

Steep cuts loom for school districts as both legislative chambers prepare to slash per-student spending and funding for programs outside the classroom.

The Pinellas County school district is focused on slicing $60 million from its budget next year, although projections range from $34 million to $86 million. The district has cut $120 million over the past five years.

Hillsborough officials, meanwhile, have cut $124.5 million from their budget over the last four years to build up reserves and prepare for the day federal stimulus money runs out. But now the district is looking at a gap of more than $100 million in its $1.7 billion operating fund under Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal, and officials say they may have to cut programs unless the Legislature increases funding.

Hillsborough County managed to comply with the final stage of the class-size amendment this school year, after spending around $1.5 billion in state money and hiring the equivalent of more than 4,000 teachers since 2003.

But several schools are filled to capacity.

The voter-approved amendment went into full force this school year. It limits the number of students to 18 for kindergarten through third-grade classes, 22 for fourth through eighth grade and 25 for high school.

The caps apply only to core courses and not to classes like physical education, band and those offered online through the Florida Virtual School. Legislators are considering excluding more classes previously considered part of the core.

The state Department of Education counted 849 core courses this school year. That number would shrink to 288 under the new proposal.

The only core classes for pre-kindergarten through third grade would be in language arts, math and science — as the rules stand now. The bulk of the changes would affect fourth through 12th grades, where only classes tested by state exams or classes required by state law to graduate from high school would be taken into account.

In all grades, special education courses and classes for English-language learners would continue to be part of the core curriculum and thus subject to class-size limits.

But foreign language classes and honors and advanced courses, for example, no longer would be.

"It would mean that the classes could grow exponentially in those areas," said Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat and Senate minority leader.

Sen. David Simmons, the Altamonte Springs Republican in charge of his chamber's pre-K-12 education budget, said the affected courses "by any stretch of the imagination could not be considered core curricula."

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, does not see it that way.

Union spokesman Mark Pudlow called the curriculum change a "cost-saving move" and not good policy for students. "They're going to pack them in like a sardine can," he said.

The union does back a portion of the class-size provision that would allow schools to temporarily have three to five more students per class. Those additional students would only be accepted after October, when schools carry out their class-size counts. And schools would have to present a plan to be in compliance with the mandates by the following October.

If approved, the measure would likely spur a legal challenge from those who sought to limit the size of classes, a House staff analysis warns.

But the Florida PTA and school districts that have supported small class sizes have still pleaded for relief.

"We have been begging for flexibility for years because the mandate is much too rigid to handle logistically," said Georgia Slack, a lobbyist for the Broward school district.

Thirty-five of the state's 67 districts fell short of meeting the requirements last fall and now face hefty fines totaling about $31 million. Tampa Bay districts — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando — have all met the requirements.

Separately, lawmakers have filed legislation to do away with the penalties.

Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Lawmakers seek ways around class-size rules 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 10:21pm]
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