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  1. Education

Senator seeks to curb school districts' misuse of Florida class size loophole

At Pasco County’s Connerton Elementary, 35 kindergarteners pack the rug for a story and lesson from co-teachers Ann Renee Evans and Cassandra Hinson, right. Pasco is among the Florida counties that use a loophole in the class-size law that can result in larger individual classes. State Sen. John Legg of Pasco County is moving to close the loophole.
Published Oct. 20, 2015

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg says he wants to stop Florida school districts from playing fast and loose with state class-size laws.

Too many districts are misapplying a 2013 law that allows "schools of choice" to evade classroom student counts, Legg said, instead using the more lenient schoolwide average that saves them money and space.

That measure was intended to provide flexibility to innovative schools, such as magnets, that seek to accommodate families seeking specific academic programs, Legg said. What has happened, though, is dozens of districts, including Pasco, Miami-Dade and Broward, have listed all their schools — including those that have long been frozen to school choice — as "schools of choice."

Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins announced earlier this fall that he would follow suit for the first time this year, as the district seeks to curb its expenses.

"All we're doing is taking advantage of the flexibility that class size presents us," Eakins explained at the time.

Enough is enough, Legg said.

With first semester class-size counts completed Friday, Legg wants to see how far out of hand the situation has gotten and then look at scaling back.

In a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, Legg requested data showing which districts have labeled themselves "districts of choice" or listed more than one-third of their schools as "schools of choice." He also asked for any documentation for those schools to illustrate their innovative programs.

Further, Legg sought the numbers of students affected by districts using schoolwide averages instead of classroom counts, the number of teaching positions eliminated or unfilled because of this maneuver and the amount of money districts have saved as a result.

He set Nov. 13 for a response.

Once the information arrives, the committee expects to have a hearing to examine potential changes to law. District leaders will get a chance to defend their choices, said Legg, who supported flexibility in class-size rules in the past but more recently opposed proposed changes to the mandate.

"We'll ask the superintendents to justify their numbers," he said.

District officials, who long have looked for ways to reduce the impact of the 2002 voter mandate, said they did nothing more than apply the law that Legg and his colleagues crafted.

"School districts are following what the DOE sent out as guidance," Pasco spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

The department told districts in an October 2013 memo how to document schools or programs of choice for class size. It did not define "schools of choice."

Districts were left to do so themselves.

Pasco leaders, who were among the first in Florida to take advantage, applied it to any school that had students from outside its attendance zone. The switch helped the district achieve full compliance with the rules.

Many districts, including Pinellas and Hernando, stuck with a strict "choice" definition. Other districts used the new statute to full effect.

Hillsborough adopted the model this year, Eakins said, in the full spirit of choice. It allowed children to go to schools outside their attendance zones without being shuffled back if additional neighborhood children pushed classes over the cap, he said.

"The only time we took advantage of this was if we felt it was in the best interest of our schools not to break up classes," he said.

Eakins added that trying to strictly follow the law created "lots of logistical problems" that led to upset parents and students. The 2013 provision created breathing room, he said.

Similar moves in other districts did not go unnoticed.

A Palm Beach County father recently sued his district over the practice after noticing his child's kindergarten classroom exceeded the 18-student cap.

"All I want is to have the class size that's provided for in the (Florida) Constitution," Paul Kunz told the Palm Beach Post.

Legg said he expected to include charter schools in the conversation, as well. Charter schools currently meet school averages for class size.

Legg, who runs a charter school, said he does not think charters without innovative programs should get the advantage of using a schoolwide class-size average, either. At the same time, he said, charter schools should get the same financial support as traditional schools to meet class-size rules.

That could mean more money for his school, Dayspring Academy in Pasco County. Legg said such a decision would be up to the full Legislature.

"Public schools are public schools," he said. "They should have equity in funding and equity in application of the law."

The House has yet to take up this concept. If it moves forward, Legg said, debate over last year's proposal to ease class-size penalties would likely take a back seat if it is renewed.

That bill has been refiled in the House by Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.

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

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