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Study Questions Cost of Florida Class-Size Initiative

As Florida school districts rush to meet lower class size requirements before a November deadline, a new study suggests that declining state budgets could change the economic benefits of the program.

In 2002, Florida voters approved class size limits of no more than 18 students in preschool through grade 3, 22 students in grades 4 through 8, and 25 students per class in high school. The changes were phased in to take full effect by the 2010-11 school year, and the state dedicated $20 billion to put the class-size caps into effect, with officials estimating it would take an additional $4 billion a year to sustain them. As part of the class size initiative, all districts received additional per-pupil funding; schools and districts that already met the class-size limits could use this bonus money for other programs.

Matthew M. Chingos, an education policy researcher at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, compared achievement trends for Florida districts and schools that used a statewide bonus to reduce their class sizes to that of districts and schools which used the bonus for other initiatives.

Mr. Chingos found the 664 targeted schools reduced their average class sizes by 3.1 students between 2006 and 2009, while the 2,106 comparison schools reduced their average class size by .5 students. Yet he found the targeted schools showed no statistically significant benefit for students in reading or math performance, nor in absenteeism, violent incidents at school, or student suspension rates, when compared to schools that used the same money for other programs.

"No matter how hard I beat these data, I can't get a positive finding," Mr. Chingos said.

Critics of the study have noted that the comparison schools already had class sizes below the state's cap, so they got the benefits of a smaller class size while still having access to additional funds.

Mr. Chingos was quick to agree that the data are limited to Florida and don't contradict prior research, such as the 1999 Tennessee STAR experiment that showed benefits to reducing class size. Rather, he argued that the Florida program costs more than other school improvement strategies but does not reduce the actual number of students enough to make a difference in achievement.

"I wouldn't go out and bet my life on the finding that CSR in Florida hurts kids," he told me. "Perhaps a more interesting question is, is it the most productive thing that could be done with the money? If you're going to spend billions of dollars for relatively small reductions (in class size), you better hope it affects achievement," Mr. Chingos said.

A ballot measure going before Florida voters this fall will ask them to raise the state's class-size limits by three students in kindergarten through 3rd grade and by five students in the higher grades.

The Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, had asked the state Supreme Court to block that ballot measure, arguing that the wording failed to disclose the effects its approval would have on school funding. The high court unanimously rejected that challenge yesterday, allowing the ballot measure to go ahead.

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