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A Times Editorial

Vote for Amendment 8 to make class size limits more workable

The senseless disruption occurring in Florida public schools this fall will be a painful annual ritual unless voters make reasonable adjustments to the state's class-size amendment. Weeks after the start of the school year, students are being shunted to new classes or being told they must take classes online. Teachers are being abruptly reassigned to new classes or forced to teach two grades simultaneously.

The logistical nightmare is the latest consequence of the 2002 constitutional amendment capping class sizes. Even before the final stage of implementation hit this school year, the measure had proven extraordinarily expensive, particularly given its questionable influence on student learning in higher grades. But now voters have a chance to alleviate some of the financial pressure and the negative impact on public schools without requiring significantly larger classes. The Times recommends approval of Amendment 8 on the Nov. 2 ballot to make class-size limits more workable and less costly.

The original class-size amendment was born in citizens' frustration that public education was underfunded in Tallahassee. But it was a blunt instrument aimed at a more sophisticated problem, and it was never the right answer. It has forced the state to spend $16 billion so far to reduce class sizes, and a raft of state test scores and other measures indicate it has not dramatically improved public education in Florida.

The citizens' petition phased in the limits, first by placing caps on classroom averages districtwide, then schoolwide. This year, the mandate hit the final, rigid and most expensive stage. Every classroom in the state must have no more than 18 students for kindergarten through third grade; 22 for fourth through eighth grade; and 25 for high schools.

The state estimates that without changes, the final stage will cost the state an additional $40 billion over the next 10 years. That is prohibitive and will hamper funding for all other priorities to improve student learning as well as other state issues. But just as significantly, the day-to-day reality of the class-size amendment's final step is proving untenable.

Even a few unanticipated students showing up in a single grade can send significant ripples throughout a district, forcing schools to hire more teachers or construct portable classrooms on the fly.

Already districts around the state report they are forcing qualified students hoping to earn college credit by enrolling in Advanced Placement courses to take the courses online or not at all. Other students have been told they won't be able to get foreign language or other courses this year unless they can get them online. While online learning works for some students and belongs in the school systems' options, it should not become the default relief valve for a flawed class-size requirement. Surely, this is not what voters intended.

Contrary to what the amendment's opponents say, Amendment 8 will not mean a return to large classrooms. It will maintain the gains Floridians saw through last year, and it would add new safeguards to maintain that status quo.

That's an important assurance for parents and teachers who are convinced that smaller class sizes lead to better learning despite a lack of compelling academic research. While most experts agree it can make a difference in early grades and for students with special needs, the data is far less convincing beyond those years. Yet Amendment 8 will maintain class-size limits for all.

Under the plan, which requires 60 percent voter approval to be adopted, classroom caps would be calculated on a schoolwide average as it was just last school year.

Amendment 8 also would cap the maximum number of students in each class so no class would be too large.

Average enrollment for kindergarten through third-grade classes at a school could not grow past 18, and no single class could have more than 21 students; for grades 4 through 8, the average would be 22 with no class having more than 27 students; classes at a high school would have to average 25 students with no single class having more than 30.

Such a structure will still hold school districts — and Tallahassee — accountable for class size while saving up to $1 billion a year in costs. It will provide school principals and faculty far more flexibility to assure that instructional choices are being made to best serve students.

With all of its flaws, the 2002 class-size amendment was a watershed for Florida schools in that it forced more funding from Tallahassee. But now it threatens to hurt the very people — students — it was designed to help. In its current form, the class-size amendment will prevent schools from being able to provide diverse course offerings, launch new initiatives aimed at improving student learning or increase teacher pay. It's time for voters to fix the class-size amendment and adopt more reasonable limits.

The Times recommends voters approve Amendment 8.

Vote for Amendment 8 to make class size limits more workable 09/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 26, 2010 2:26pm]
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