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Amendment Eight Would Ease Class Size Limits

October 15, 2010 | WMFE - Today is the last day for Florida public schools to meet the state's new class size requirements. Voters decided eight years ago to cap elementary classes at 18 students, middle school classes at 22 students, and high school classes at 25 students. That could cost the state $20 billion over the next eight years. Amendment Eight on the November ballot offers a cheaper, but controversial, alternative.

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Teachers at A-rated Kenwood K-8 Center near Miami are happy their class sizes have been steadily shrinking as the new requirements have been phased in over the past few years.

Veteran fifth-grade teacher Carla Gordon remembers classes at other schools before the caps.

“I've had classes of 39 [students] with five Michaels,” she said. “I had Michael A, Michael B, Michael C, etc. And did I know those children like I know these children I have now? No way!”

But as the deadline for capping the number of students in individual classrooms approached, Kenwood Principal Moraima Almeida-Perez felt the pressure.

“We're very close to it,” she said, “we're very fortunate, just a couple of kids over in some of our classes.”

Amendment Eight would let Almeida-Perez base class size compliance on a school-wide average, instead of head counts in each class. The amendment would allow an individual class to go over the cap by up to five students.

Florida Tax Watch estimates that wiggle room could save the state as much as a billon dollars a year in teacher salaries and classroom construction. But parents and teachers unions want no compromise on small classes.

“It’s the one thing we have in Florida that positively affects student achievement,” said Karen Aronowitz, President of United Teachers of Dade.

At Kenwood K-8, teachers and students are happier in their smaller groups, and academic performance has improved. But Principal Almeida-Perez doesn’t think she can go much smaller without damaging her academics and maybe even turning her A school into a B school.

In some schools, class size caps are cannibalizing the programs that helped make the schools successful. Almeida-Perez runs a successful remedial reading program, but lately, she has had to send her reading coach into a classroom to be a "co-teacher," a human ratio reducer when a class goes over the size limit.  Sometimes, she has combined excess fourth graders with excess fifth graders into a single class with one teacher and two sets of lessons.

“I would say we are really stretching the limits of being academically sound for our kids because of a constitutional amendment,” said Almeida-Perez.

Broward County, the state's second largest school district after Miami-Dade, raised school taxes this month to hire more than 400 new teachers and avoid fines for not complying with the new class size caps.  

Broward Superintendent Jim Notter says it was a necessary move, but he thinks it was “not the right expense of the taxpayers’ money”

Right now, individual counties are footing the bill for smaller classes, but the state eventually has to pick up the cost. That's what led the Florida Legislature to put Amendment Eight on the ballot.

The Pro-Eight campaign is supported by $3 million from corporations.  The anti-Eight campaign, funded entirely by the state teacher's union, has only about $200,000. But Broward PTA president Bernie Kemp says parents have already made up their minds.

“We as parents went to the polls in 2002 and voted that we have a class size reduction based on teacher-student ratio, not school wide,” he said.

The battle over Amendment Eight pits teachers and parents, who want the smallest possible classes, against administrators and legislators, who have no idea how to pay for them.

 

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