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PolitiFact: State Rep. Franklin Sands' class size claim needs explaining

After spending nearly $16 billion to implement Florida's voter-approved plan to reduce class sizes, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican Legislature are now talking about reining it in.

But a leading Democrat says the idea would leave the state not much else than a big bill to show for the investment.

"I am hesitant of the governor's call for changing the class-size amendment in the state Constitution," House Democratic leader Franklin Sands of Weston said in a press release Jan. 29. "I seriously doubt that Floridians will want to undo what they approved in 2002. I strongly support giving school districts the flexibility they need to deal with small increases in the student-teacher ratios. But it is important to remember that Florida still averages more students in its classrooms than any other state in the Southeast."

We wondered if Sands' claim, that Florida averages more students per classrooms than other states in the Southeast, is right.

First, some background.

In November 2002, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that sets limits for how many students are allowed per class starting in the 2010-11 school year. The limits are subdivided by grades K-3, 4-8 and 9-12: no more than 18 students for grades K-3, no more than 22 students for grades 4-8 and no more than 25 students for grades 9-12.

In 2003, the state started to slowly implement the changes. First, classroom reductions were measured at the school district average, then at the school average. In the fall, districts are scheduled to meet the new limits in every classroom.

But Crist and some prominent state legislators have suggested freezing the class-size reduction program at the school average rather than investing more money. (The state Department of Education says reducing class sizes further would cost an additional $3.2 billion.)

A recent state report suggests almost 235,000 classrooms in 2,769 schools across Florida would fall short if the amendment were fully implemented in the fall. In contrast, only a small percentage of schools have not met the requirements of a schoolwide average. Districts face possible financial penalties in the millions if they fall short.

Back to Sands' claim. His office pointed us to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, which is considered a primary source on education statistics and research.

States submit annual data to NCES, which then calculates enrollment and teacher statistics. The most recent data available is from the 2007-08 school year, said Patrick Keaton, a researcher with the group. Data from the 2008-09 school year is due out this spring, he said.

Using teacher and enrollment data, NCES calculates a pupil/teacher ratio. Florida, in 2007‑08, had 15.8 students for every classroom teacher, NCES reported. That is more than Alabama (14.8), Arkansas (14.1), Georgia (14.1), Kentucky (15.3), Louisiana (14), Mississippi (14.7), North Carolina (14), South Carolina (15), and Tennessee (14.9), according to NCES.

Now Sands said in the "Southeast" — which isn't a region defined by the U.S. government and has subjective boundaries. If, for instance, Virginia fits your definition of Southeast, it had a higher pupil/teacher ratio in 2007-08 (17.1) than Florida (15.8), NCES found. If you consider Texas or West Virginia in the Southeast, each has a pupil/teacher ratio lower than Florida's.

Among the 50 states, Florida was tied for 35th with respect to pupil/teacher ratio in 2007-08, according to NCES.

Another important distinction: Sands said Florida "averages" more students in its classrooms when compared to other states. But average class size and pupil/teacher ratios are not equivalent, said Alan Richard of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan group that helps 16 member states create education policy.

Class size measures the number of students in a class — most often core math, science and English classes — while pupil/teacher ratios take the number of students in all types of classes and divide by the number of teachers.

Put another way, if 30 high school juniors were in an English class and 10 high school juniors were in an art class, the calculation for class size would likely be 30, but the calculation for pupil/teacher ratio would be 20. Not all states calculate average class size. (At least Tennessee and Kentucky don't, education officials in those states confirmed.)

Back to what Sands said: His broader point — that Florida has more students in its classrooms than other states — is largely true, as measured by pupil/teacher ratios. But Sands said "Florida still averages more students in its classrooms than any other state in the Southeast," and there are at least three caveats to his statement:

• Use of the word "still" implies currently, but Sands is relying on 2-year-old data to make his claim. (We tried to calculate 2008-09 pupil/teacher ratios ourselves using state enrollment and teacher data. While Florida's position didn't change among the states we were able to collect information from, we can't say unequivocally that Florida ranks last.)

• Sands is slightly misrepresenting NCES calculations. Though speaking about average class sizes, he refers to a report measuring pupil-to-teacher ratios, which can be different.

• And then there's a question on what states are included in the Southeast. If Virginia is included, Florida ranks second.

That's enough asterisks to knock Sands' statement to Half True.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

The statement

"Florida still averages more students in its classrooms than any other state in the Southeast."

Franklin Sands, D-Weston, the state House Democratic leader, in a Jan. 29 press release

The ruling

Florida has more children in its classrooms than many other states, but Sands' statement misrepresents the two-year-old data he relies on, so we rate this a Half True.

PolitiFact: State Rep. Franklin Sands' class size claim needs explaining 02/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 9:54pm]

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