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Study aims to determine the best class size

When all else fails, do a study.

For three years, the Legislature has been pouring millions into reducing class sizes for Florida's youngest students, with little to show for it. The numbers have barely budged, and lawmakers still are arguing over what size class really is best.

Lawmakers on Thursday gave final approval to legislation that would study the effects of smaller classes sizes. It now goes to the governor for approval.

Under the bill, school districts would have to pick at least one elementary school next school year and allow only 20 students per class in kindergarten through third grade.

Districts that have state-designated "critically low-performing" schools would have to use those schools for the study. In those schools, classes could include only 15 students.

At the end of the 1998-99 school year, the Department of Education will study how reducing class size affects student performance. The study is due no later than Jan. 1, 2000.

The measure also includes a goal that all kindergarten through third grade classes in the majority of Florida public schools have 20 students beginning in the 1998-99 school year. The critically low-performing schools would have 15 students per class. There are about 30 such schools in Florida now.

State Rep. John Rayson, D-Pompano Beach, was elated Thursday when the House sent the class-size bill to the governor. He had been trying to get the legislation approved for several years. The Legislature has been putting money into the budget ($100-million for next year), but it has never passed separate legislation enacting the class size goals. The legislation also includes a provision from the Senate that encourages elementary schools to teach "character education" emphasizing "attentiveness, patience and initiative."

Next year, Rayson said, he is going for "full funding" for class-size reduction. But he doesn't know how much it will cost to cut all kindergarten through third grade classes to 20 or 15. School districts say it will take a lot more than the $100-million the Legislature has allocated.

The state House also approved a bill Thursday establishing a pilot program for "deregulated" public schools. These are similar to charter schools that receive tax dollars but operate relatively free from government bureaucracy.

The main difference is that private entities usually operate charter schools, but school boards would oversee the "deregulated" schools. The Senate already approved the bill, so it goes to the governor.

The pilot programs will be in six counties: Pinellas, Citrus, Palm Beach, Seminole, Leon and Walton. In each county, two high schools, two middle schools and two elementary schools would be chosen for the program.

The program was added by the Senate to a bill that solves a funding problem related to money for special needs students in public schools.

House members grumbled Thursday, needing to pass the funding bill but objecting to a last-minute, little-studied concept of "deregulated schools."