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St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll: Most parents favor class-size limits

Two weeks before a critical vote, a majority of Tampa Bay parents have a message for those who want to tweak Florida's class-size amendment:

Leave it alone.

Some 55 percent say they want to keep the strict class-size caps established by the 2002 amendment, while 35 percent say they favor a more flexible approach, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll of Tampa Bay-area parents with school-age children.

"It was passed for a good reason: You can't manage classes that are that large," said Patrick Cestone of Wesley Chapel, whose daughter attends Land O'Lakes High.

Those numbers are not good news for supporters of Amendment 8, which Florida lawmakers put on the Nov. 2 ballot. It would ease the classroom-by-classroom caps in favor of schoolwide average, a move favored by many superintendents and school board members but opposed by many teachers. It needs 60 percent to pass.

The survey of 702 parents was conducted by phone from Sept. 24-30. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

The 2002 amendment was borne of frustration with Florida's historically low spending on public schools. It required that core classes have no more than 18 students in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in grades 9-12. The state has spent nearly $19 billion to shrink them.

But now comes the hard part.

Until this year, districts only had to make sure the average class size in every school met the cap. Now, every classroom must be under the limit.

For weeks, districts have been scrambling to get that done using a number of strategies.

Julie Young, president and chief executive officer of Florida Virtual School and its various franchises, said its enrollment increased this year as districts directed students to the online courses to ease class sizes.

Enrollment at one of those franchises, Hernando's eSchool, surged from about 200 students at the start of the school year to nearly 600 students this week, spurred, in part, by efforts to reduce high school class sizes, according to Hernando school officials.

But more frustrating to students and parents have been the thousands and thousands of changes to class schedules as districts tried to balance student needs with class size.

In Hillsborough, Karen Blauser said she moved her sixth-grader out of Eisenhower Middle after officials rearranged his classes because of class size. He now attends a charter school.

"They're still trying to juggle the schedules there," she said. "It's a mess."

The Times/Bay News 9 poll found Blauser isn't alone.

Eighteen percent of respondents in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties said their child has changed classrooms or teachers or had schedules changed because of class-size complications. A quarter of them said the change made things worse; a quarter said it made things better.

Yet Blauser isn't blaming the amendment. She's blaming the Legislature and the district for not planning better.

"They knew it was coming. They should have been more proactive," she said. "Now they're crying foul."

In Hernando, Joshua Jefferys thinks the amendment is at fault.

The ways he sees it, mandating smaller classes at the same time the teaching corps is spread thin forced some schools to lower their standards. His boys — one at Pine Grove Elementary and the other at West Hernando High — had substitute teachers for a good part of last year, said Jefferys, 35, a former cabinetmaker who is now disabled.

Kids in a slightly bigger class with a good teacher are far better off that kids in a slightly smaller class with a sub, he said. "To put it plain and simple, they're more ignorant now because of (smaller) class sizes."

Louise Kelly has another reason for wanting the amendment changed. She wants the savings spent on other education-related things, like higher teacher pay.

"There's only a limited amount of money for schools, and I don't think class size is as important as the other things," said Kelly, whose daughter attends Carwise Middle School in Pinellas.

Solid academic research suggests she is right. Modest, across-the-board reductions in class size yield small academic gains, with the biggest impact coming for struggling minority students in lower grades. Research also shows teacher quality is a bigger factor than class size when it comes to student performance.

But that's not what most parents are thinking. Most voters, either.

A September survey by Mason-Dixon Research and Associates found numbers similar to the Times/Bay News 9 poll, but statewide: 35 percent of likely voters said they'll support Amendment 8; 53 percent said they won't.

Many see the proposed tweak as a way to let lawmakers and school boards off the hook. And many say that's not what they want to do.

"The public school system wastes so much money, I'm sure they could cut some of that to put toward class size," said Kathy Gasparini, an East Lake mother with two kids in public school and three in private.

"I know it's expensive. But it's a good idea, and it's already passed. Why change it?"

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

How districts fell in line

Friday marked the final day of Florida's annual fall student count. Districts face penalties of about $3,000 per student over the caps. The state will release final results in November. Tampa Bay school officials said Friday they were confident the final tally would show them in compliance. Here's some of what it took to get there:

HILLSBOROUGH: Spent around $1.5 billion and hired the equivalent of more than 4,000 teachers since 2002, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said; just nine classes over the limit as of Thursday.

PINELLAS: As of Friday, had fewer than 10 classes over, said deputy superintendent Jim Madden; has hired 27 long-term substitutes in elementary schools alone.

PASCO: Denied more school choice requests, limited enrollment in high-demand classes, created multigrade classrooms, put students into virtual courses and hired 200 new teachers.

HERNANDO: Added at least 15 teachers and 19 long-term substitutes at a cost of about $1.2 million; also expects to fork out about $600,000 to teachers taking on more classes.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tony Marrero, Tom Marshall and Rebecca Catalanello.

St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll: Most parents favor class-size limits 10/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 16, 2010 11:38am]
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