TAMPA, Fla. — Like many parents, Jeannette George values the small class sizes at her son's elementary school. There are 18 students in D'mitri's third-grade class in Tampa this year, exactly the amount Florida voters set as a cap in the early elementary grades when they passed the class-size amendment in 2002.
"The children get more one-on-one attention," she said. "Teachers have a bit more control."
The plan sounds good on paper, but, increasingly, lawmakers and school administrators are finding it difficult and costly to implement. In all, taxpayers have spent $10.4 billion to reduce class sizes, and the Department of Education estimates it will take another $1.4 billion in teacher hires and construction to bring schools into full compliance by the 2010-2011 school year. With Florida's economy flagging, that is a tough bill to pay.
When the Legislature meets for its annual session starting March 3, they will consider a joint resolution that would ease some of the amendment's stricter requirements and give schools more flexibility with class numbers.
"As Florida goes through the result of a national meltdown of our economy, school districts and the state of Florida clearly do not have the resources to meet the constitutional amendment that was passed in terms of class by class," said James Notter, superintendent of the Broward County School District.
The amendment as it exists today requires schools to have no more than 18 students per class in kindergarten through third grades; 22 in fourth through eighth, and 25 in high school classes.
Those standards apply to core classes like reading, math and science, but not electives.
Currently, class sizes are measured by calculating a schoolwide average. But in 2010, districts will need to meet those numbers in individual classes. Some administrators already fear that will force them to break up classes in the middle of the school year if an extra student moves in and the classes are at capacity.
"I can tell you that is a very disruptive thing and parents do not like it, nor do children, nor do teachers," said MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of the Hillsborough County School District.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has submitted a resolution that would keep the current schoolwide average calculation in place, allowing flexibility for a few extra students in some classes. The proposal also sets individual classroom caps at 21 for early elementary; 27 through middle school and 25 in high school.
"Class size itself is not a bad idea," Weatherford said. "It's just the manner in which it's in the constitution right now makes it impossible to implement."
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, plans to submit a similar resolution in the Senate. If passed by the Legislature, it would go before voters in the November 2010 general election and need 60 percent approval.
Before then, it's likely to encounter resistance from teacher unions and parents.
"We've worked hard to get the class size provisions enacted," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union in Tallahassee. "And before we decide to stop and not fully implement them, I think we ought to go ahead and fully implement them and see if they're worthwhile."
For a number of years, elementary classroom sizes have been getting smaller. In the 1993-1994 school year, there were 24.1 students in a class on average, compared to 20.4 in the 2003-2004 school year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education. In secondary school, that number has risen slightly, from 23.6 to 24.7.
The idea is simple enough to grasp: Reduce the number of students in a class, and teachers will get more time to focus on the lesson plan and cater to individual student needs. Ideally, it will also free educators to be more creative in how they teach their lessons, as they spend less time trying to maintain order in a crowded classroom.
Studies on classroom sizes, however, paint a mixed picture about how effective they really are.
Dominic Brewer, a professor at the University of Southern California, said small class sizes tend to work best in early elementary grades and with poor students. With a one-size fits all policy like Florida's, those targeted students are benefiting from smaller class sizes, but so are those who don't necessarily need it.
"There's just no evidence that at the higher grades, or kids already doing OK, that the smaller classes really make much difference," Brewer said. "If you tie up dollars to a particular purpose, like class size reduction, you just take away the flexibility of districts to move resources around, and whenever you do that, you're likely to be less efficient."
Since 2003, student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has steadily increased. Whether that has anything to do with the smaller class sizes, though, is subject to debate. Academic observers also point to the importance of teacher quality, parent involvement, and a rigorous curriculum in student achievement.
"The reality of it is there is no magic number," Notter said. "It really is the quality of the teacher in the classroom and the quality of the leadership. Those are the two biggest determining factors of achievement."
With the economy in recession, Florida districts aren't the only ones keen on looking at alternatives to strict class size reductions. A survey by the American Association of School Administrators conducted last fall found that 36 percent of the 836 districts polled had already chosen to increase class size.
"It's happening everywhere because there isn't a state that hasn't been forced to cut back on their budget and districts all around the country are faced with the same problem," Dan Domenech, the group's executive director, said.
Senate President Jeff Atwater said he believes constituents are still in favor of the amendment and would prefer to press on with implementation. But he recognized the measure would be costly.
"That's a lot of money," Atwater said of the $1.4 billion needed for the reduction. "And is that the best deployment of those dollars to go to this next phase, or is it in other types of educational experiences within the school system?"
Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said he hadn't had an opportunity to review the proposed legislation, but remains "supportive of greater flexibility for our districts during these tough economic times."