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Legislature Looks At Penalty Changes For Class Size Amendment

The Florida legislature is back with its latest attempt to revise state laws dealing with the number of kids that can be in classrooms. The issues date back more than a decade when voters approved class size limits through a state constitutional amendment, and a it has caused heartburn and headaches for school districts across the state ever since.

The legisature has put more than $22 billion over the last decade into building new schools and classrooms and hiring more teachers. And lawmakers question how the state can spend so much money and still have schools and districts fail to meet class size:

“The legislature has provided this funding...and my question is, why are five percent still struggling to provide for this with all the funding that’s been provided?”  said Republican Representative Larry Ahern of Pinellas County, who sits on the House Education Appropriations Committee.

The group has okayed a bill that would change the way fines against schools out of compliance with the amendment are levied. Right now, each classroom at a school has to meet the state caps. And the fines are determined on a class by class basis. But a bill By Republican Representative George Moraitis would base the fine on a school-wide average:

“If one class is at 19, that’s out of compliance and you get hit. If a school-wide average with one at 17 and one at 19, your average is 18 [therefore] you are in compliance, and you won’t get hit," he explained to the panel.

Using school-wide averages, for fines is already in effect for charter schools. Moraitis’ bill would apply the policy to regular public schools. Right now, about 95 percent of Florida’s classrooms are in compliance. But in some areas of the state, the task is much harder. Take the case of Broward County. It’s lost $200 million over the past few years and had to lay off about 1,000 teachers. It’s class size fines have been as much as $8 million in recent years. But lobbyist Georgia Slack says, the district has been trying to do better.

“We’re now finally at a point where we are coming out of it...the point of that is that’s what happened on the operating side. We satisfied the proviso language. And then, when the proviso language went away, we were chastised for it.”   

Broward had a million-dollar fine this year, and under the calculation changes, that fine would be reduced to about $600,000. But as Miami Dade School District Lobbyist Uriah Mendez Godilla says, the biggest is flexibility.

"As a district as large and mobile as us, we will never be 100 percent compliance. Let me give you a real example. An elementary school is in 100-percent compliance. In comes a family with three children a 2nd grader, a 3rd grader and a 5th grader. And they [the school] has room for the 2nd grader, but not the 3rd or 5th grader. And the family has to make a decision. Where do they go to?” She said.

“At the end of the day, so long as members of this committee are provided a detailed and concise plan of how you’re going to come into compliance...and that the choice of flexibility is provided to those that come close and can’t get there, I’m in favor of reducing the penalty," said Committee Chairman Eric Fresen (R-Miami).

Other lawmakers want to see language proposed that would put limits on the number of students classrooms could go over. Members of the committee say their votes could change later on in the process if they aren’t satisfied with the way the final bill turns out. It still has several more committee stops.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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