There are times when, under the guise of flexibility, school choice is simply a way to avoid laws designed to protect the interests of children. Class size was mandated by voters in 2002 in the Florida constitution. Charters were able to use a school average class size but not district schools.
Laws implementing the amendment should be applied to all schools in the same way. They are not. Schools of Choice play by different rules. Districts want the same flexibility as charter schools. They found a way, but now Senator Legg wants to close that option for school districts.
A Tampa Bay Times article reports that 33 districts have designated more than half of their schools as ‘schools of choice’. Seminole County reports that all of their schools are. The advantage is that choice schools have flexibility to limit some class sizes and expand others as long as the average class size by grade group meets the requirement. Charter schools are choice schools, and districts are creating magnets and other forms to qualify for the exemption to class size limits.
The 2002 amendment nine limits PreK through grade 3 classes at eighteen students. Grades four through eight are limited to 22 students per class and high schools are limited to 25 students. There is a loop hole. The legislation includes only ‘core courses’, mainly those measured by state assessments or are required for high school graduation. Courses like Advanced Placement that may result in college credit are excluded.
Failure to meet class size requirements can result in a financial penalty. Districts, however, must cope with teacher shortages and increasing costs, and manipulating class size is an important tool. There are practical issues as well; for example a class with one or two students over the limit would not justify another teacher. Therefore, some districts prefer to increase class sizes and pay the penalty; it is less expensive than hiring more teachers. The legislature recognizes the problems and has reduced the number of courses required to comply.
Studies evaluating the effectiveness of small classes report mixed results. The Brookings Institute summarized studies across the nation. They conclude that the largest impact of smaller classes is for the primary grades and especially for disadvantaged students.
Senator Legg was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times article saying that district schools either must show that their schools of choice have open enrollment with available seats and some form of innovation. Otherwise, district schools must meet the class size requirements. Senator Legg owns a charter school. These requirements do not apply to him.
There is a common sense solution. All publically funded schools should follow the same policy. If the policy is wrong, and schools need flexibility, provide it. If some children would strongly benefit from small classes, fund them. Various calculations of the cost of the current policy center around $20 billion. It would seem that a focus on young children who might benefit from small classes would be both practical and cost effective.