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Bill addressing class size amendment passes Senate committee

By Staff | Mar 4, 2010

A bill to change class size requirements passed the Senate’s Policy & Steering Committee on Ways and Means, 15-8, only three days after the Legislature began its 2010 session.
Approved by voters in 2002, the Class Size Amendment caps the number of students per class and goes into effect this August. School boards from Florida’s 67 counties have made altering the amendment a priority as districts struggle with simply balancing their own budgets.
The way it reads now all schools have to ensure that class size doesn’t exceed 18 students in elementary school, 22 students in middle school and 25 students in high school by this fall. As a result, districts across the state may need to build new classrooms and hire new teachers.
A new bill, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, passed the ways and means committee Thursday, on a strictly party-line vote, and if passed by both houses will be placed on November’s ballot as another constitutional amendment.
This bill offers to expand size limits by three students in elementary school and five students in middle and high school — resulting in caps of 21, 27 and 30. It also allows districts to use school averages rather than class averages to determine if they are in compliance.
Lee County School Board Chairman Steve Teuber said he supports the bill.
“Class size is going to bankrupt the state,” said Teuber. “Whatever they need to do politically to give more control to the school level, I am in support of it.”
Hard economic times are effecting both school districts and the state. The amendment was passed nearly a decade ago with the intention of improving education, yet there’s simply no money to fund it.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik said requirements should be eased until the economy turns around, otherwise school boards would have to consider tax increases to pay for additional classrooms or portables.
“I do support the easing of the requirements until we get through the next two or three years of hard times,” said Chilmonik. “We can’t raise taxes on people and that would be an option the district would have to look at.”
In a weekly address to members of the Florida School Board Association, Executive Director Wayne Blanton said that besides the state budget and tying teacher evaluations to student achievement, the class size amendment is one of biggest issues in the 2010 session.
Earlier this week the bill passed the Senate Education Pre-K committee on a 6-1 vote, and the House committee as well, said Blanton. He stressed that the Class Size Amendment is still in play.
“It does not repeal the class size amendment,” he said.
The state has already invested a total of $18 billion in achieving class size requirements over the last decade — $16 billion for operating and $2 billion for capital outlay, statewide.
For the last two years the Lee County School District has received approximately $80 million in funds to meet the requirements, but with statewide budget reductions and a loss of local tax revenue, it’s been a struggle to achieve full compliance.
Even though school districts want to see the amendment changed, teacher’s unions don’t agree.
Mark Castellano, president of the Teacher’s Association of Lee County, the county’s teacher union, said the Florida Education Association has given the Legislature multiple chances to add flexibility to the amendment.
“They have had the opportunity to do that and they have rejected it for no good reason but that they wanted to play politics,” said Castellano.
Union leaders are worried that using school averages to determine class size will create high school classes with more than 30 students, but where administrators average those numbers against smaller classes to reach an appropriate school average. Castellano said this is a disservice to students.
Local school boards have been pushing for the changes and are worried about what will happen in the next school year if the amendment continues on its current trajectory.
“If it doesn’t change, and we end up doing what we are supposed to do, the Legislature sure has their hands full,” said Teuber. “It will consume every district.”
Education experts have claimed that smaller class sizes improve student performance, yet Chilmonik questions whether Lee County’s academic benefits are outweighing the price of the class size amendment. He said that FCAT scores for high school students haven’t increased dramatically since the amendment passed in 2002.
“The class size has been implemented over the last few years and has it shown any improvement?” asked Chilmonik. “In Lee County has there been any improvement? No.”