by: Scott Maxwell | Orlando Sentinel | September 27, 2016
I have a confession: I really like school open houses.
I like walking the halls, hearing the bells ring and scurrying from class to class to meet the teachers who inspire, challenge and sometimes madden my kids. Heck, I even like sitting in geometry … if only to bask in the fact that I’ll never have to take geometry again.
One other thing I enjoy doing during open houses is counting desks. And if I ever count more than 25, I know there’s a potential problem.That’s because the Florida Constitution says core high school classes shouldn’t have more than 25 students. The numbers are even lower for younger grade levels — a maximum of 22 students in fourth-through-eighth grade and 18 in pre-K-through-third.
Yet Florida is full of classes with 28, 30 and even 35 students. In almost every district in the state. Why? Because Tallahassee politicians and education bureaucrats have twisted and contorted the rules so much that that 35 students can count as only 25 if you use the right loophole.
Welcome to Florida, where numbers don’t really matter — and neither does your vote.
The hubbub started back in 2002 when parents led the charge for smaller classes. This groundswell of parental involvement angered politicians who like their citizens passive and their schools underfunded.
Gov. Jeb Bush announced he had “devious plans” to circumvent the amendment if it passed. Actually, Bush didn’t really announce his “devious plans.” He was caught plotting them on audio tape by a reporter Bush hadn’t noticed in the room. Oops.
Bush quickly said he was just kidding and stressed that he had no plans to undermine the voters’ will.
State officials then began undermining the voters’ will.
Even though the amendment clearly states that class-size caps applied to “each teacher,” Florida officials created “algorithms” that now allow schools to use school-wide and even district-wide averages. That works out dandy if your kid is in one of the low-count classrooms used to balance out the average. Not so much if he or she is struggling in a room of 37.
Legislators were even more ingenious in exploiting a loophole in the amendment that said “extracurricular” classes weren’t subject to class-size caps. The provision was meant to allow larger classes in P.E., drama or chorus — subjects where extra students were more manageable.
But lawmakers seized upon that. Suddenly Spanish became an “extracurricular.” So did French. And American lit. And marine biology.
But it didn’t stop there. Advanced Placement courses became electives as well. Math classes have firm caps. AP math classes do not.
Cade Resnick, who teaches AP economics and psychology at Lyman High School in Seminole, said this week he has as many as 32 students in his classes. He loves his job, but said big classes don’t allow much time for one-on-one instruction or to “dig deeper into the material.”
Most of us know this. It’s the same reason private schools tout small classes as one of their top attributes.
Really, this is all about money. Florida has short-changed schools for decades. The most recent Census stats put Florida 41st in per pupil spending — about 20 percent below the national average. We even trail Arkansas.
The good news is that we’ve made progress. Spending is up. And class sizes are generally down. Heck, most of my own kids’ classes pass muster. But gobs of classes are still too big. And between redefined “extracurriculars” and a growing number of schools and districts “of choice” (which use the averages to calculate class sizes), the vast majority of Florida classes are no longer subject to caps.
I support some flexibility when new kids move into classes. But 35 or 40 kids in math or English classes simply isn’t what voters demanded.
A lawsuit may be a quick fix. After all, the Constitution is clear on this. It doesn’t allow averages or provide for magical “algorithms.” It has crystal clear numbers.
But a better fix would be for our governor and legislators to simply start funding schools properly. Somewhere around the national average. Somewhere north of Arkansas. Somewhere along the lines of what the Constitution demands.