Bill may ease penalties for overcrowded classes

Bill may ease penalties for overcrowded classes

(Fla.) Legislation that would ease financial penalties for schools that exceed class size limits breezed through Florida’s House last week but is drawing concern from some parents and teachers.

HB 665, authored by Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, would calculate a school’s penalty based on the average class size at each site rather than the total number of classrooms that surpass the cap. Proponents of the bill believe it would save the state money and ease schools’ burdens to pay the fines, thereby freeing up more funding to spend on classroom instruction.

The bill passed in a landslide 107-3 vote.

Opponents worry, however, that the legislation could create a slippery slope where classrooms become so crowded that students won’t be able to focus, and teachers won’t have enough time for each student or the ability to manage the class well.

Studies have shown that smaller class sizes contribute to a more positive classroom environment where students learn better and test higher.

Unfortunately, fiscal restraints have forced some districts to consolidate classrooms in order to cut costs.

In its 2015-16 budget, Detroit Public Schools called for classes in grades four through 12 to increase class size by five students in order to help reduce the district's $127 million deficit. This means that fourth and fifth grade classes will each hold 38 students, and grades six through 12 will have 43 students per class.

In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that capped class sizes at 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades 4 through 8, and 25 in grades 9 through 12. Since the law was fully implemented in 2010, 24 districts have been penalized for not complying, despite nearly $30 billion in state spending to help schools do so.

An effort to scale back parts of the law was made in 2010 but failed to garner the 60 percent vote needed to pass by approximately 5 percent.

Lake County Schools faced a nearly $1.2 million fine from the Florida Department of Education earlier this year based on the class-size reports it had submitted. After recalculating and sending in updated information, the fine was reduced to $160,000. Similarly, Miami-Dade faced an almost $2.7 million fine prior to resubmitting its data.

HB 665 and a companion bill in the Senate could help avoid such mistakes by amending how penalties are calculated.

Supporters say the bills wouldn’t lead to increased class sizes, but would simply give schools that cannot easily hire additional teachers or set up new classrooms some flexibility.

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