A commonsense proposal to ask voters to adjust the class size amendment in November is taking hold in Tallahassee. Unless changes are made, the class size requirements will hit with full force when a new school year begins in August. Calculating strict class size limits room by room instead of by the current schoolwide average is not worth the extraordinary $3.2 billion cost, and the tax money can be put to better use.
The plan put forward by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who voted for the original class size amendment, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would still require classes to stay within three students of the maximum allowed between kindergarten and third grade and within five students between fourth and 12th grades. But it would provide badly needed flexibility to an amendment that never should have been approved in the first place.
Since its approval by voters in 2002, the amendment indeed has reduced class size — by six students in pre-K through third grade, and five students in grades 4 through 8. It also has been expensive, with districts spending billions of dollars meeting the mandate. But while most schools have complied when measured by schoolwide average, a recent state report suggests that nearly a quarter-million classrooms would fail the new class-level standard if it were rigidly enforced.
Particularly in these cash-strapped times when every education dollar needs to be spent in the best possible way, a wise answer is to build flexibility into the class size standard. Even if the amendment gets the required three-fifths vote of the Legislature to make the November ballot, 60 percent of voters would have to approve it.
In the meantime, even without amending the Constitution, a consensus of educators and legislators seems to be coalescing around a financially responsible solution that would grant districts some flexibility. A plan could honor the classroom caps of the amendment — 18 in grades K through 3, 22 in 4 through 8, and 25 in high school — by taking a snapshot in October. Then classes could increase by perhaps up to three in kindergarten through third, and up to five in grades 4 and up if more students come later in the year and the School Board determines that letting the class size go up is the least disruptive solution for the students.
It is intellectually more honest to amend the Constitution. But since that can't happen until at least November, a short-term legislative fix is a commonsense alternative that keeps the best interests of the students at heart. It allays the fears about the so-called "19th student," when a school would be forced to add a teacher because a young student entered a class at midyear and put it over the constitutional limit.
The original class size amendment never should have been approved, and now Florida is stuck with an inflexible standard of questionable academic benefit and terrific cost. The best alternative now is to amend the class size amendment to reflect some common sense and save tax money that could be better spent.