Thousands more Florida schoolchildren are in smaller classes, thanks to $140-million over the last two years from the Legislature.
But the state has a long way to go to reduce class sizes for the majority of elementary pupils, and the Legislature will be under increasing pressure from parents to build more schools.
"With continuing expansion of Florida's student population, the issue of crowding in classrooms is likely to remain a concern in the foreseeable future," a Department of Education study on class sizes concludes.
The research gives a picture that can be viewed in a positive or negative way.
The good news: In the fall of 1996, 29.2 percent of Florida's first-graders were in classes with fewer than 20 pupils _ a goal set by the Legislature. That's up from 20.2 percent in 1995.
The bad news: Even with the increase, 70 percent of first-graders are in classes considered too large. Education studies generally have shown that smaller classes have a positive effect on learning, and that in particular, disadvantaged and minority students perform better in small classes.
The study shows a big improvement for kindergarten pupils as well. In 1995, only 11.9 percent of Florida's kindergarten classes had 20 or fewer pupils; In 1996, the number was 26.3 percent.
And those figures don't take into account that school districts can meet the Legislature's goal by putting teacher aides in classrooms that exceed 20 students. Hillsborough County, for example, had 452 aides in kindergarten classrooms last fall _ more than any other county in the state.
The picture for second- and third-graders was far worse, with only 10.8-percent of second-graders in classes with fewer than 20 students in 1996; and 8.4-percent of third graders.
But overall, State Rep. John Rayson, D-Pompano Beach, was thrilled with the progress in kindergarten and first grade. "If you get the fundamentals, by the third grade, class size is less important," he said Monday.
Rayson has unsuccessfully pushed a bill for two years that would put class size goals into a separate state law. Lawmakers instead chose to insert language into the state budget that sets priorities and distributes money for reducing class sizes. In 1995-96, $40-million was allocated; last year, the figure was $100-million.
This year, fiscally conservative Republicans control the House and the Senate, and Rayson said he can't necessarily count on money being put into the state budget to reduce class sizes.
So he is back with a bill that would create a state law to set a goal of 20 students a class for kindergarten through third grades. It would cost $200.4-million to phase in the plan through the year 2000-2001.
A House committee approved the bill unanimously on Monday, but its fiscal implications won't be taken up until later. Lawmakers pointed out that the $200.4-million covers only teacher salaries.
The challenge is to find enough classroom space to accommodate smaller class sizes.
"Facilities is going to be the biggest problem," said State Rep. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who is chairman of the main House council over school issues.
The House and Senate are studying ways to pay for more schools. A reform commission appointed by the governor has proposed expanding a utilities tax for school construction.
The Department of Education study shows that school districts tried to reduce class sizes in different ways. Some gave top priority to schools with the highest percentage of poor children. Others relied on teacher aides more than others, and still others focused on particular grades.
Pinellas, for example, showed significant progress in reducing class sizes for kindergarten pupils, but did worse in keeping down the number of pupils in first-grade classrooms.
"There wasn't enough money for us to go to the other grades," said Oscar Robinson, director of elementary education for the district.
Pasco County relied heavily on multigrade classes which put kindergarten, first-and second-graders in the same class, said Bob Dorn, director of curriculum and instruction. He said 43 percent of those classes have either 20 or fewer students or 29 students and a teacher's aide.
The education study says Florida may need to get creative and do more than build schools to solve the overcrowding problem.
"Computer-assisted instruction, the use of interactive media, and distance learning may also provide part of the solution to the problem of crowding in Florida's public schools."
_ Staff writers Kati Kairies, Anne Lindberg, Nancy Weil and Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.
MEETING THE GOAL
School districts have been getting a special pot of money for reducing class sizes for children in kindergarten through third grade.
Here are the percentage of kindergarten classes with fewer than 20 students:
Pinellas 21.2% 74.6%
Hillsborough 20.4% 11.9%
Pasco 18.9% 17.8%
Hernando 6.8% 42.2%
Citrus 12.5% 38.8%
STATE 11.9% 26.3%
Some districts are meeting the goal of reducing class sizes by adding teacher aides to larger classrooms, which the state standards permit. Here is the percentage of first-grade classes that meet the goal through a combination of teachers and aides:
Pinellas 22.0% 16.0%
Hillsborough 17.5% 23.8%
Pasco 19.1% 45.3%
Hernando 25.4% 11.9%
Citrus 22.7% 63.4%
STATE 23.7% 34.6%
Source: Florida Department of Education
Source: Department of Education