Before Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers launch another round of divisive education reforms, they should clean up the mess the Legislature created as it tried to drum up support for easing the state's class-size requirements. Under a law passed last spring, school districts that don't comply with strict class size limits will have to fork over cash in February to districts that do. Now 35 of the state's 67 school districts face penalties. Only in Tallahassee does it make sense for one public school district to reap a reward from the failure of another.
Ultimately, the political ploy failed. A majority of voters backed Amendment 8 — a reasonable plan to loosen requirements of the 2002 voter mandate to shrink class sizes. But the 55 percent approval rate was less than the 60 percent needed to amend the state Constitution. So under the final phase of the class-size amendment that took effect this school year, no core public school class is supposed to have more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade; 22 in fourth through eighth grade; and 25 in high schools.
That wasn't the outcome Republican leaders sought. Hoping to build support for loosening the class-size requirements, lawmakers cited declining state revenue and gave districts no additional money to pay for complying with the final phase of the class limits. That forced school districts across the state to employ dubious measures to comply, from assigning two teachers to classes to forcing students into online offerings.
But lawmakers went one step further by adopting an idiotic punishment scheme under which districts that failed to meet the caps in every single classroom in October would face fines of up to $3,000 for each student seat not in compliance. School districts were expected to sound the alarm, raising awareness of how impossibly burdensome and expensive the class-size caps were. Privately, lawmakers argued the fines would not be an issue if voters approved Amendment 8.
At least one district called their bluff. Palm Beach County, contending it would cost up to $60 million to comply with the class-size amendment's final phase, took its chances and has now drawn a preliminary fine of $16.6 million. But 34 other districts — though none in Tampa Bay — also are in violation and subject to fines. The Board of Education will consider the department's recommended fines later this month.
Now school districts are threatening to file lawsuits if the fines are enforced, arguing lawmakers are at fault for not providing enough funding. State leaders shouldn't allow this absurd situation to progress to that money-wasting point. Instead, Scott and legislative leaders should signal to the Board of Education it can put off any fines until lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March and abandon this plan all together.
Then lawmakers should do what they should have done years ago: Rewrite the state law implementing the 2002 class-size amendment to allow more discretion for school districts. Republicans contend that might not be constitutional, though class-size backers disagree. But it's the only commonsense option left.