TALLAHASSEE — Having already spent $16 billion to reduce class sizes — and facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit — leading Republicans including Gov. Charlie Crist want voters to reconsider their 2002 vote in favor of smaller classes.
Crist, who in the past has opposed tinkering with the class size amendment, on Monday said he now supports essentially freezing it where it is now — with mandated caps calculated as school-wide averages.
Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Panhandle superintendent, and Rep. Will Weatherford plan to unveil such a proposal in the coming days: a constitutional amendment that would be put before voters in November if the Legislature approves it.
"Now we need a more affordable approach — one that doesn't overburden taxpayers, or force students to change schools," Crist said at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg, where he unveiled his proposed $22.7 billion education budget.
Superintendents and others say going to the next phase — caps for every classroom, beginning next school year — would cost too much, create problems with student enrollment and do little to improve student achievement.
"This is a more reasonable and practical approach than … pretending that we have billions to spend, or thinking it's okay to bus kids an hour away or run schools in double shifts," said Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville.
• • •
Lawmakers have fretted over the class size amendment and its cost ever since voters passed it. Last year, the Legislature approved a temporary "fix," freezing full implementation until fall 2010 and keeping counts at the school-wide level.
Now, even some of the most ardent supporters of smaller classes are seeing a need for more flexibility.
Democratic Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami, a former schoolteacher who supported the class size amendment, likes certain "fixes" to help schools. Still, she opposes anything that would trump the amendment.
"There is a way to mitigate all the concerns, and there are common-sense measures that schools can take to make this work," Wilson said. "People voted for it for a reason."
The amendment caps the number of students at 18 in grades K through three, at 22 in grades four through eight and at 25 in grades nine through 12.
Schools have adopted it gradually since 2003, spending billions to hire more teachers and build new classrooms. But a recently released state report suggests that nearly 235,000 classrooms in 2,769 schools across Florida would still fall short if the amendment is fully implemented in the fall.
That includes 11,186 classrooms in Pinellas, 6,548 in Hillsborough and 4,975 in Pasco.
In contrast, only a small percentage of schools have not met the requirements of a school-wide average.
Seven Oaks Elementary School in Pasco County, the school closest to Weatherford's district office, has met the school average requirement, but only after hiring extra teachers at midyear.
To comply at the class level, the school would have to hire five or six more teachers.
The mandate for smaller classes is popular with teachers and parents. But some teachers realize financial realities may get in the way.
"I just can't see how you are going to accommodate doing that," said Morrisa Holub, a third-grade teacher at Seven Oaks Elementary who now has 18 students. "How are you going to financially do it?"
• • •
Since 2003, the statewide average class size has shrunk by six students for prekindergarten to grade three and by five students for grades four to eight.
Weatherford said that proves the state has adhered to the spirit of the constitutional amendment.
He and Gaetz are considering a provision they said would continue to encourage smaller class sizes: Even with the school-wide average, classes would still have to stay within three students of the maximum allowed. That would prevent schools from having 12 students in one class and 24 in another, for example.
"We're not trying to water this down," said Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel. "We're just trying to do this in a way that makes sense for everyone."
The new constitutional amendment may have backing not only from Crist but also from the Florida School Boards Association. The group could be a key supporter in helping secure the two-thirds vote needed in the Legislature to get the amendment on the November ballot.
"I think parents are starting to see we're not bad off now, counting at the school level," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
His group and the Florida Education Association also support the "fix" that would allow schools to have to count class sizes only once in the fall and then have until the following school year to adjust.
Proponents say the policy would prevent principals from having to scramble to bring in a portable classroom, hire a new teacher or break up classrooms every time a new student arrives at midyear.
Districts also face financial penalties in the millions if they don't meet the mandate. The juggling act to meet the class size requirement has varied from district to district.
Hillsborough has enough teachers, but scheduling and space remain concerns, said Ken Otero, Hillsborough County schools' chief of staff. Particularly in middle and high schools, an English teacher might teach 150 students in a day, but one class might have 26 students while the next period has 24.
Other districts say they're on track no matter what happens.
Pinellas County schools continued to add teachers to the staff even as the schools lost students, said assistant superintendent Joan Minnis.
"We have been staffing our schools based on class by class," said Minnis, who monitors the enrollment weekly. "We are pretty good to go."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.