Fed up with crowded public school classrooms and angry that the Legislature was unwilling to fix the problem, Floridians amended the state Constitution six years ago to limit the number of students in a class and force the state to bear the costs. The amendment worked — class size has indeed shrunk in the last several years — but at an awfully high price. In this economic recession, the steep cost of implementing the final aspects of the amendment by the 2010-11 school year is not worth it, and the money is needed elsewhere. If the Legislature cannot create some flexibility when it meets next month, then voters should be asked to amend the Constitution to allow for some in 2010.
Since the 2003-04 school year, billions have been spent on class size reduction. But the state Department of Education estimates that the highest costs are still ahead: Meeting the upcoming class-by-class limits would cost more than an additional $1 billion in the first year alone. So far, districts have used a school-wide average. Districts are in compliance as long as those average numbers don't exceed 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 in high school. But the Constitution requires that each individual classroom meet those targets by the 2010-11 school year. That will be too expensive and too inflexible.
The need for flexibility is easy to understand. When a 19th kindergarten student moves into a school, should the school have to hire another teacher because the class is one student too big? And should a gifted high school lecturer who can easily teach 30 students be forced to limit the class size because of a strict rule? A school-based average with a slightly higher cap on an individual classroom would offer some flexibility and financial relief.
Some legislators hope the state can achieve that goal without amending the Constitution. Others, including Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, believe the best option is to ask voters to loosen the constitutional rules. They are sponsoring a resolution that would ask voters to amend the Constitution to allow districts to use the schoolwide averages to meet classroom requirements but still impose class-by-class maximums — slightly higher ones of 21 in kindergarten through third grade and 27 in fourth through eighth grades. Most districts are already in compliance with school-based averages.
Yet this cannot be a way for the state to further avoid its responsibility to properly fund public education. The Constitution requires the state, not local districts, to shoulder the costs of reducing class size. Yet the state's share of education spending has shrunk from its peak of 62 percent seven years ago to a record low this year of 49 percent. That is a bad trend line for districts. It is up to legislators to find revenue sources to uphold the state's obligation to education, a burden placed squarely on it by voters.
It would be best if the Legislature could find ways to give schools some room to work without asking voters to amend the Constitution yet again. If that is not possible, then lawmakers should ask voters to do it next year.