Column: It's time to rethink class size requirements

Published Sept. 6, 2017

Remember the last special legislative session when the world was abuzz with the news that $100 million more was being added to the schools budget? Now, imagine at least 20 times that amount being added every year. It could happen.

Substantial scientific research shows that the current class size requirement in the Florida Constitution loses much of its effect above the Grade 3 level. That means that the state is plowing about $2 billion each year into an unproven education reform that does little to help our children succeed. Simply put, it's money that could be better spent on other educational programs.

Since 2002, taxpayers have invested more than $36 billion to reduce class sizes with the expectation that smaller classes will improve student achievement, but they have little to show for that investment in most grades.

The most definitive study of class size reduction in Florida, conducted by Harvard University researchers, shows that class size reduction had no discernible impact on student achievement, absenteeism or behavior in grades 4 through 8. There is evidence that smaller classes for pre-K through third grade has promising effects on student learning, and both Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Council of 100 agree those class sizes should remain small or get smaller. However, the substantial body of research shows that the policy should be abandoned for grades 4 and above with the money reinvested in strategies that will increase student learning.

That's the underlying theme of years of TaxWatch research, available on the TaxWatch website, and the Florida Council of 100's recent report, "Horizons 2040: Prekindergarten to Grade 3."

Horizons 2040 makes numerous recommendations for improving our school systems, including attracting and retaining high-performing teachers and leaders; expanding high-quality voluntary prekindergarten programs; providing school districts with a flexible source of funds for specialized student populations, such as English-language learners, struggling or at-risk students, or students needing intensive reading instruction; expanding the use of technology and personalized methods of school instruction; and even reducing class sizes where proven effective like in grades pre-K through Grade 3. The Council of 100 recommends paying for these enhancements with class size savings, and years of independent research by Florida TaxWatch concurs with the need to reinvest the money wasted on class size reduction.

Despite the substantial investment of state funding and the flexible methods to comply with the constitutional requirement afforded by statute, local school districts continue to struggle financially to meet the requirements and some districts have had to choose between hiring more teachers and saving vital programs.

Florida TaxWatch and the council believe that there is no substitute for having a well-qualified and experienced teacher in every classroom and that districts need the flexibility to cater to the educational needs of their students.

The idea would be for the Legislature to develop a special list of uses for the money and then let school districts decide how best to allocate the dollars to help their students. For example, a district with many English-language learners might want to invest in more reading coaches while a district needing laptops could spend its funds on that. Additionally, school districts could use the repurposed funding for the No. 1 factor in a student's success — hiring and paying more outstanding teachers.

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To make this happen, though, we must amend the Florida Constitution. The Florida Council of 100 has proposed just such an idea to the Constitution Revision Commission, and it's vital that we all get behind it.

Florida is the only state that gives taxpayers a voice in amending their state constitution through a Constitutional Revision Commission. Every 20 years, this body meets to consider reforms that will better serve the people and taxpayers. The CRC is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of our children. The CRC should take up this issue and put it on the 2018 ballot for all to vote on. Our students and the taxpayers of Florida funding their education deserve nothing less.

Dominic M. Calabro is president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. Bob Ward is president and CEO of the Florida Council of 100.