Senator seeks to curb school districts’ misuse of Florida class size loophole

CASH COUNTING DOLLARS

by Jeffery Solochek|Tampa Bay Times

October 19, 2015

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg says he wants to stop Florida school districts from playing fast and loose with state class size laws.Too many districts are misapplying a 2013 law that allows “schools of choice” to evade classroom student counts, Legg said, instead using the more lenient school-wide average that saves them money and space.

That measure was intended to provide flexibility to innovative schools, such as magnets, that seek to accommodate families seeking specific academic programs, Legg said. What has happened, though, is dozens of districts including Pasco, Miami-Dade and Broward have listed all their schools — including those that have long been frozen to school choice — as “schools of choice.”

Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins announced earlier this fall that he would follow suit for the first time this year, as the district seeks to curb its expenses amid shrinking reserves.

“All we’re doing is taking advantage of the flexibility that class size presents us,” Eakins explained at the time.

Enough is enough, Legg said.

With first semester class size counts completed Friday, Legg wants to see how far out of hand the situation has gotten, and then look at scaling back.

In a letter to Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart, Legg requested data showing which districts have labeled themselves “districts of choice” or listed more than one-third of their schools as “schools of choice.” He also asked for any documentation for those schools to illustrate their innovative programs.

Further, Legg sought the numbers of students affected by having the compliance calculation at the school rather than classroom level, the number of teaching positions eliminated or unfilled because of this maneuver, and the amount of money districts have saved as a result.

He set Nov. 13 for a response.

Once the information arrives, the committee expects to have a hearing to examine potential changes to law. District leaders will get a chance to defend their choices, Legg said.

“We’ll ask the superintendents to justify their numbers,” Legg said.

This issue has not gone unnoticed by parents. A Palm Beach father recently sued his school district over the practice after noticing his child’s kindergarten classroom exceeded the 18 student cap.

“All I want is to have the class size that’s provided for in the constitution,” Paul Kunz told the Palm Beach Post.

Legg said he expected to include charter schools in the conversation, as well. Charter schools currently are not required to meet classroom count caps.

Legg, who runs a charter school, said he does not think charters without innovative programs should get the advantage of using a school-wide class size average. At the same time, he said, charter schools should get the same financial support as traditional schools to meet class size rules.

That could mean more money for his school, Dayspring Academy in Pasco County. Legg said such a decision would be up to the full Legislature, and not be his alone.

“Public schools are public schools,” he said. “They should have equity in funding and equity in application of the law.”

The House has yet to take up this concept. If it moves forward, Legg said, debate over last year’s proposal to ease class size penalties would likely take a back seat if it is renewed.

That bill has been re-filed in the House by Rep. George Moraitis.

Read article here.

Read letter to Commissioner Pam Stewart here.

 

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