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  1. The Education Gradebook

Florida's school class size limits reviewed

A 2013 state law aimed at giving Florida public schools flexibility similar to that of charter schools has fast become a way for districts to avoid the most expensive provisions of the 2002 class-size reduction amendment.

The rule let campuses deemed "schools of choice" calculate their class size as a school average, rather than as strict classroom counts.

Since it was passed, 61 percent of the state's 3,041 district-run schools have gained the vaguely defined label.

Key lawmakers said those numbers, released last week by the state Department of Education, increased their concerns that school districts are gaming the class-size system.

"The data the commissioner outlined is going to spur some legislative action," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, who sponsored the legislation and called for a report on its implementation. "It is time we stop playing shell games."

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., chairman of the House Choice and Innovation subcommittee, said he expected the Senate to lead on this issue. He suggested the rapid rise in schools of choice "begs the question — what determines what a school of choice is?"

When the concept first came about, bill sponsors including Sen. Bill Montford, who heads the state superintendents association, said they aimed to give traditional schools some of the class-size breaks that charter schools receive. But the added consideration would come only for schools that offer innovative programs.

Legg contended many schools that received the designation offered nothing new and weren't truly open to choice. He observed that in his home county of Pasco, 27 schools frozen to choice enrollment were labeled "schools of choice." Pasco was one of the first Florida districts to adopt the model for all its schools.

Since then, 24 other districts, including Manatee and Sarasota, have designated more than 90 percent of their campuses the same way.

"We are not abusing the law," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said. "We are utilizing the law the way the law is written and the way it's been interpreted by the Florida Department of Education."

Pasco students can gain access to every school in the county, Browning said, and that's why they qualify.

He stressed the district aims to meet the strict guidelines of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 in high school. But having the ability to go over by a few students helps alleviate a potentially major expense, Browning said.

"I cannot afford to bring another teacher in for being one student over class size," he said. "It isn't as easy as saying 18, 22, 25, that's it, boom, make it work."

Legg said he anticipated going one of two ways.

The Legislature could more clearly define the term "schools of choice," which state Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart noted is now simply up to districts to decide. Or it could eliminate the schoolwide average loophole for all schools including charters.

Legg, who operates a charter, and Diaz, who works for a charter firm, both said they preferred to keep as much flexibility and choice in law as possible. Much will depend on how districts react, they said.

"Are some of these schools being labeled just to get the flexibility? Or are they really doing something different?" Diaz said. "If we're using this as a vehicle to get around the rules, we need to take a look at it."

Legg expected to have a bill in play early in the 2016 session.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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