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Florida’s class-size amendment: Fixing a $30 billion mistake

• Mike Thomas

I will begin this tale of the absurd with an anecdote.

There was this perfect kindergarten class in our neighborhood school. The teacher was experienced, warm with the kids, responsive to the parents and on task with the three R’s.

There was only one glitch. There were 20 children in the class.  That was fine with the teacher and the parents but not with the state of Florida, which has a mandated cap of 18 kids in kindergarten.

Much to the parents chagrin, all the kindergarten classes were broken up and reshuffled to form a new class. This fruitless exercise disrupted the first month of school for the kids you least want to disrupt. Obviously it added costs. But it did nothing to improve the education of the kids.

This is just one, small example of what is going on with Florida’s hard cap on class sizes, which I confess to strongly supporting when voters added it to the state constitution in 2002. It called for 18 students per class in grades K-3, 22 students per class in grades 4 through 8; and 25 students per class in high school.

What sounded good on a ballot turned chaotic when implemented to the letter of the law. We now have an annual exercise in head counting, body shifting and last-minute scrambling. Districts found in violation are fined, draining funds intended for educating students. Some districts have intentionally violated the class-size requirements because it can be cheaper just paying the fines.

Thirteen years after voters approved the amendment, the state has spent $30 billion implementing it. In 2010, researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School examined test scores between 2004 and 2009 in grades 3-8 and concluded that shrinking classes “had no discernible impact upon student achievement, either positive or negative.’’

The rapid academic gains made by Florida students over the past 15 years track accountability reforms, not class-size reductions.

If you had to summarize the national research, the general consensus is that smaller classes most benefit disadvantaged children in the early grades. Beyond that, any advantage becomes far less clear.

And so the question becomes: If you have a pot of money for education and your goal is to maximize student learning, would you spend $30 billion on enforcing hard caps in every classroom?

And the answer is no. It is hard to rationally argue that a good kindergarten teacher can’t handle 20 kids, or that having 25 students in a high school science class versus 28 really is going to make any difference.

This is not an argument for packing students into classes like sardines. It is an argument for rational flexibility, allowing principals to adjust class sizes according to need while working within the overall guidelines set by the amendment.

In 2010, voters agreed, with 55 percent supporting a referendum to use school averages in calculating class sizes. That was a higher percent than approved the original class size amendment eight years earlier.

Unfortunately, the referendum rules had changed. A 60 percent margin was required for passage, so the will of the decided majority was thwarted.

Florida lawmakers can fix that by passing legislation giving voters what they asked for five years ago – school averages. Money now spent on meeting hard caps could be redirected toward more worthwhile education policies.

This is how Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, put it: “By adjusting the way our state’s schools calculate their class sizes, billions of taxpayer dollars would be freed up for use on proven tools to increase student learning gains. School districts would be able to invest in better teacher training programs, higher teacher salaries and more resources for students.”

Teacher effectiveness is the biggest factor in student achievement. Rather than artificially limit the number of students a great teacher can teach, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay her incentives to take on as many kids as she can capably handle?

If you are a parent, would you rather your child be with a better teacher in a class with 30 kids, or with a mediocre teacher in a class with 25 kids?

The debate over the effectiveness of smaller classes will go on. The debate about the effectiveness of Florida’s ham-handed approach to smaller classes is over.

And now it is time for lawmakers to fix it.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at