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Leave class size amendment alone, teacher’s union says

Posted on Friday, April 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

By Ken Jackson
Staff Writer
A Tallahassee economic research group believes the state of Florida should revisit its public school class size reduction law, but local education leaders said there are good reasons for it.
School LogoResearch presented last week by Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit taxpayer research institute, said investing elsewhere in education could yield higher student achievement than allocating money to reducing class size.
The independent analysis in “Taking A Fresh Look At Florida’s Class Size Limits” finds that while smaller class sizes do benefit students in pre-kindergarten through grade three, reducing class size for students in grades 4-12 has not shown to increase student achievement, and doesn’t rationalize the $27.6 billion spent to cover facilities construction ($2.53 billion) and operating expenses ($25.06 billion) necessary to comply since voters approved the 2002 constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes.
The report also found that smaller class sizes do not influence teaching methods, as teacher inexperience hampers benefits of smaller classes.
Instead, Florida TaxWatch supports a new amendment permitting districts to achieve the class size reduction mandate on a “school level class size average” basis for grades 4-12. That would provide flexibility while “only modestly” affecting how class size limits are applied.
This would generate an estimated $7 to $10 billion in savings over 10 years, the study said, which could then be reinvested directly into the classroom to raise student achievement, such as in teacher development and
classroom resources.
Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, said some Florida districts are currently not complying with the law, preferring to pay fines for not meeting the class size requirements that cost less than hiring more teachers to make classes smaller.
“The significant investment required from our state to comply with the class size mandate has drained our education system of the resources it needs to effectively enhance student achievement,” he said. “Florida should maximize the use of the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to ensure every student has the resources they need to succeed. Evidence has shown that reducing class size across all grades, as now required, has not proved to give our taxpayers a good return on their investment.”
Bob Nave, director of the TaxWatch’s Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, said re-examining the class size amendment is one way to increase student achievement at a much lower cost to taxpayers.
“Reinvesting money that has been restricted to class size compliance will equip Florida teachers with the tools they need to succeed in the classroom, and give more students access to a better quality education,” he said.
But Apryle Jackson, president of Osceola County Educators Association, the local teacher’s union, said the research is simply an opinion made without actual classroom experience.
“Changing the class size amendment requirements for grades 4-12 would drastically harm the quality of education for the students in our schools,” she said. “The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and numerous universities have conducted studies which provide the opposite data.
“Class size has a direct impact on student learning gains. I can only speak from my own experience. During my first five years teaching in Osceola District Schools, I often had over 35 students in my fourth grade classes. Half of those students were not fluent in English. There was simply not enough time during the day to give individualized instruction to those who needed extra help.”
Jackson said once class sizes are established in the fall of each school year, the class size maximum can then
be exceeded.
“The district is already saving to hire fewer employees,” she said. “Most elementaries have six first-grade classes. If we add four students to each class that’s 24, and they save one
whole class.”
Jackson noted that classes not required for high school graduation are exempt from
the law.
“Biology is required, but non-core classes such as chemistry have 30-35 students in each class. Would you want to be responsible for that many students participating in labs?” she said. “Foreign languages are also bursting at the seams. Teachers are doing excellent jobs with these large numbers. It is not the inexperience of the teachers. We all need to be cautious with how our taxes are spent, but not on the backs of our children. They are our future and deserve our full support.”
John Boyd, Osceola’s district director of Government and Labor Relations, said Osceola County is fully class-size compliant and benefits by receiving a portion of fines collected from districts that are not. He said he feared that funding source could go away with the type of new legislation TaxWatch proposes.
“If they reduce the penalties then this could become an unfunded mandate,” he said. “So I say to some of those who support this in areas that member districts collect, watch what you wish for.
“We are a high-growth district in the fourth largest state in the country. We even grew during the recession. If we’re not diligent, we’ll be out of compliance and be penalized.”
Boyd said that, on the surface, TaxWatch’s support of class size caps until third grade actually works against older students.
“I appreciate what (TaxWatch) is trying to accomplish but this seems like a disservice to those after third grade. You can’t stop caring about students once they reach fourth grade,” he said. “Voters were quite clear when they voted for this by a super-majority (in 2002). I’m not so sure a new amendment that would change their will
would pass.”