The 2002 class size amendment was a well intended but flawed attempt to improve public education in Florida. School districts have tried to cope with its requirements by too often relying on sleight of hand to meet the letter of the law but not its spirit — turning good educators into cheaters. It's time for the Legislature to end the charade and put an amendment on the November 2016 ballot that would allow districts to use schoolwide averages to comply with the Florida Constitution.
Using schoolwide averages rather than classroom-by-classroom averages would give superintendents and principals flexibility, make the entire process more honest and allow educators to focus on the key promise in the state Constitution: a "high quality system of free public schools." The class size amendment is too rigid, and the efforts to work around it are too deceptive.
Voters passed the amendment out of exasperation with underfunded, overcrowded classrooms. It sets limits of 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades 4 through 8 and 25 in the higher grades. But even the amendment's language includes wiggle room, saying that the limits don't apply to "extracurricular classes" that were not defined.
The enacting law says the limits include only "core classes," which exclude art, career education and courses that can count for college credit, among others. And it allows charter schools and "schools of choice" — which are defined however a district decides — to avoid the strict classroom limit by using schoolwide averages. One class can be a little over if another is a little under. That kind of flexibility, in the right hands, is a good thing and an appropriate nod to local control.
Over the years, some districts have been accused of "stacking" classrooms, leaving one classroom wildly out of compliance rather than risk paying the penalty for having multiple classrooms in violation. The state is investigating Pinellas County to see if it hired substitute teachers just long enough to bring down the classroom count during last year's state monitoring period. Pasco County defines all of its schools as "schools of choice." The parent of a Palm Beach County kindergarten student recently sued the district, saying his son's classroom has too many students and that calling it a "school of choice" is an unconstitutional fiction.
The list goes on, but the bottom line is the same: The law now encourages cheating or at least the bending of rules by districts that should be focused on the needs of the students, not on adhering to a strict classroom formula.
A majority of Florida voters five years ago wanted to amend the Constitution to explicitly allow schoolwide averages to be used. The amendment fell short of the 60 percent needed for approval, but the will of the people was clear.
Sen. John Legg, the thoughtful New Port Richey Republican who chairs of the Senate Education Committee, would prefer schoolwide averages but doesn't believe courts would find them constitutional. Yet the Legislature already allows charter schools and "schools of choice" to use schoolwide averages, under the reasoning that parents are knowingly trading class size limits for school choice. Legg, who believes in school choice, flexibility and innovation, is drafting legislation that would more narrowly define what a school of choice is to keep districts from using it as a dodge. But while well meaning, this is a half measure that doesn't solve the fundamental problem.
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It would be better to ask voters themselves to make a common-sense change to amend the Constitution next year. It's the most honest approach, and it would allow districts to focus on their mission: educating students rather than searching for loopholes.