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Empty Promise

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  • | 10:07 p.m. November 19, 2009
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Better performing students was the promise of reducing class sizes in Florida when voters approved the class size amendment to the Florida Constitution in November 2002.

But seven years later there's more doubt than ever that smaller class sizes have any significant effect on student performance.

The legislation implementing the amendment required the Legislature to provide the school funding based on relatively less costly district-wide averages spelled out in implementing legislation. But beginning with the 2006-07 school year, that legislation shifted the requirements to a much tougher, but more flexible school level standard while continuing to require districts to lower average class sizes by two students per year.

The cost of meeting the new requirements doubled from $1.6 billion in 2005-06 to $3.2 billion in 2006-07. Capital cost increases were the main culprit, going from $83.4 million to $1.1 billion.

Next year, the requirement switches to the completely inflexible classroom level meaning no core class may have more than 18 students in grades K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and no more than 25 in high school.

“You're handcuffing the principal and the layout of the school,” says state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey. Legg finds himself at the center of this debate as chairman of the Pre-K-12 Policy Committee and vice chair of the Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee. Besides his big concerns with the lack of flexibility, Legg fears districts could be sued anytime the caps are exceeded by a single student who might show up in mid-semester.

And just as the cost of the effort now approaches $19 billion, the consensus of researchers is that it's not a cost-effective solution to increase student achievement. In other words, there's not much bang for a whole lot of buck.

As if Florida doesn't have enough other problems with a $2.6 billion state budget deficit to resolve for fiscal year 2010-11, part of that deficit comes from an additional $353 million in added school operating costs, according to a state estimate. That comes as student enrollment has declined.

But some say that operating cost estimate is way too low. With class size amendment costs rolling over from previous years, the projected operating expense is now $3.2 billion in 2010-11 to comply with the class size reduction requirements. That exceeds the more than $2.8 billion extra this year and $2.7 billion last year.

Now it's projected that total operating and capital costs tied to the amendment will reach $19 billion next year, a figure called “incredible” by Collier County School Board Vice Chairwoman Kathy Curatolo. Even so, she says the additional $353 million expense next year sounds low based on what she knows about the costs in her district where another $2.35 million is anticipated to be spent this year without any new capital costs.

That outlay brings the district's total cost of implementing class size reduction to $118 million. Next year under the tighter standard, the district is faced with having to hire 239 more teachers at a cost of $16.2 million, and that's if enrollment remains flat. If districts don't meet the requirements, penalties are assessed by the state.

Sarasota's school district estimates a total average cost of $71,000 per teacher, meaning class size reduction requirements will cost more than $53 million next year, including nearly $9 million to implement the classroom level standard. Hillsborough's school district staff is still crunching the numbers for next year, but say that through last year the district has spent $978 million to meet class size reduction requirements.

Not cost-effective
The Florida Board of Education knows class size reduction is more than a big budget buster, but does not seem sure what to do with it. At a recent meeting in Palm Beach, class size implementation was on the agenda along with several studies on its effectiveness, the board kicked the issue to January.

The Florida Department of Education provides the “Analysis of Class Size Research” to the state board. The analysis focuses on two key studies. The first, “The Evidence on Class Size,” authored by Eric Hanushek, found that class size reduction “is ineffective when it comes to student performance.” He also found that it “is not the most cost-effective solution for increasing student performance.”

Another study, “Economic Considerations and Class Size” (Alan Krueger) found that the policy may be effective in certain situations, such as if resources are “optimally allocated” and targeted toward minority and disadvantaged students, “but large scale class size reduction is ineffective.”

A recent California study found that class size reduction “had a small positive impact on student achievement, with larger effects found in mathematics than in either reading or language achievement.”

And a 2006 cost-effectiveness study of Florida's effort found that it's “not a cost-effective means of raising student achievement as measured by Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores in Florida.”

The study also found “that the lower the expenditures per student, the higher the student achievement scores.” And the study concluded that investing in teacher quality would produce the same student performance results, but at a lower cost than by reducing class sizes.

A recent Review analysis of the eight Gulf Coast school districts also found generally higher FCAT scores and higher rated districts where districts spent less per student (See Oct. 9, 2009).

It seems clear from these studies that a more surgical approach targeting specific demographic groups, courses or focusing on quality of instruction would be a better use of taxpayers' dollars.

“Logistical nightmare”
The Florida Education Association, which stands to gain thousand of new teacher members, is the only education lobby opposed to giving voters a chance to modify the class size amendment. The modification is supported by the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida, Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida Association of School Administrators.

House Joint Resolution 919 attempted to bring the issue to voters last spring far enough in advance of the classroom level standard going into effect next year to provide for a smooth transition. The bill would simply make the classroom standards an average rather than a hard cap, but still set maximum class sizes.

Beginning with the 2010-2011 school year, the joint resolution changes the way that class size compliance is calculated as follows:
For Pre-K through grade 3, the maximum students per class is raised from 18 to 21, but the average cannot exceed 18.
For grades 4-8, the maximum students per class is raised from 22 to 27, but the average cannot exceed 22.
For grades 9-12, the maximum students per class is raised from 25 to 30, but the average cannot exceed 25.

But Democrats supported by the teachers union lobby strongly opposed it in a 78-41 favorable vote in the House. The bill died in the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee chaired by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, after being referred to hers and three other Senate committees late in the session. Detert says she favors more flexibility for districts and supports giving voters the chance to weigh-in.

Now with more severe budget issues facing lawmakers, the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, chairman of the Education Policy Council, plans to bring the same legislation back in the 2010 session.

Weatherford and Legg see the classroom standard presenting “a logistical nightmare” for school administrators having to constantly adjust core class sizes or redistrict more students. Weatherford emphasizes that the bill does not eliminate class size requirements. “We want to bring a little flexibility to it,” he says.

The difficulty now is that school districts will have had to adopt their 2010-11 budgets by next summer several months before the November referendum, if legislators are successful getting it on the ballot.

Asked about that conundrum for districts, Legg says, “They're going to have to comply with the class size amendment as passed by the voters. They'll have to have a Plan B, if you will, to implement that.”

What that means is that districts will budget millions of extra dollars they may not end up needing to meet the rigid classroom standard, but then if the referendum passes in November, districts will likely amend their budgets and layoff hundreds of personnel — mostly teachers.

Weatherford also believes the projected added costs of going to the classroom level are too low because they don't factor in big expenses tied to transportation and other costs associated with teachers and materials, saying, “When you add it all up, the cost is much greater than $353 million.”

In the Senate, Weatherford has a powerful ally in a fellow Pasco County resident, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who does double duty as Senate president pro tempore. Fasano agrees that the cost of implementing will be much higher than $19 billion.

“We will one day and look back (and see) that the class size amendment was an amendment that was too expensive for the taxpayers to deal with,” says Fasano. Already seeing schools closing in Pinellas County and baby boomers not having more children, Fasano predicts: “You're going to see a lot of empty school buildings in the future.”

Class size reduction fails

Here are the key points of the FDOE Bureau of Research and Evaluation analysis of class size studies:
• Lack of quantifiable evidence to support widespread class size reduction policy.
• Evidence shows that class size reduction policies have minimal effect on student performance.
• Experts agree that class size reduction policy is most advantageous when targeted toward minority and disadvantaged students.
• Research shows class size reduction policy is not a cost-effective solution to increase student performance.
• Alternatives to class size reduction, such as investments in educator professional development and quality of instructional staff, have shown similar increases in student performance.

Class size Fall 2010
K-3: 18
4-8: 22
9-12: 25

To view the state averages for class size reduction and the costs associated with it, download it here. ClassReduction.pdf

Jay Brady covers state and local government issues. He can be reached at [email protected], or at 941-362-4848.


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