There WAS no disputING that a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to loosen class size requirements would save taxpayers money. Now Florida TaxWatch has estimated the savings, and they are substantial: Up to $1 billion annually. That is a lot of money that could be better spent on real education reform, not just counting heads in the classroom. Amendment 8 won't eliminate Florida's smaller class sizes; it will just make the voter mandate far more manageable.
TaxWatch's calculation, released this week, is more of a back-of-the-envelope calculation than a solid economic projection. Even so, it's the only attempt so far to assess the dollars at stake under Amendment 8. Neither the Department of Education nor the Republican-led Legislature, which put the question on the November ballot, has made a projection. But TaxWatch, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group, used historical data and educated assumptions to calculate that fully implementing the 2002 class size amendment would cost the state $4 billion each of the next 10 years. But if 60 percent of voters approve Amendment 8, the cost would drop by at least $360 million or as much as $1 billion annually.
Without a change, Florida's public schools starting this fall will be forced to show they have no more than 18 students in each prekindergarten through third-grade class; 22 students in fourth through eighth grades; and 25 students in ninth through 12th grades. The result is that whenever a new child shows up at a school where classes are at capacity, school districts will be forced to transfer students or hire new teachers. Such rigidity belies common sense and fiscal prudence — particularly in the face of studies that cast doubt on the impact class size has on student performance, especially after the early grades. In Pinellas County alone, district officials are estimating class size compliance in 2010-11 will cost $14 million unless the rules are loosened.
After seven years and more than $16 billion in investment, at least one-third of the state's classrooms last year still exceeded the per-classroom cap, although the amendment only required schools to meet the cap on a schoolwide average. Amendment 8 would make the schoolwide average the standard going forward and add language to ensure that no single class would grow too large. No teacher could be assigned more than 21 students in prekindergarten through third grade; more than 27 in fourth through eighth grade; and more than 30 in high school.
That's far from abandoning the spirit of the 2002 class size amendment. As the TaxWatch report shows, Amendment 8 would merely make the class size limits more rational in an era of limited resources. Every penny spent reducing class sizes means less money for real innovation, be it teacher merit pay or expanded educational offerings.