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UPDATED: The Costs of Class-Size Reductions in Florida

[UPDATE: Several of the Florida districts facing monetary penalties for not meeting class-size targets have had their sanctions chopped down a bit, after state review. But they're still facing a combined $31 million in penalties. You can listen to the Florida education commissioner's discussion of where things stand at this link—the relevant sections are at the 36 minute and one hour and 17 minute marks.]

Florida schools and districts face hard-and-fast mandates for achieving low class sizes. And the price of noncompliance could be steep.

This week, the state's board of education was scheduled to hear an update on the appeals of schools and districts across the state who face monetary penalties for not meeting the requirements of class-size limits, approved by the state's voters through a 2002 constitutional amendment.

Those penalties range from a few thousand bucks in some schools and districts to $16.6 million in the Palm Beach County system. Schools and districts were given an appeals process through the state's commissioner of education, Eric J. Smith, who was expected to review those pleas with the state's board of education this week. The commissioner would then submit his final recommendations on easing penalties to the state's legislative budget commission next month.

The deadlines and penalties come as some states across the country appear to be heading in the other direction on the class-size issue. In Idaho, school superintedent Tom Luna unveiled a plan to allow class sizes to tick upward a bit, as part of broader agenda aimed at improving teacher quality while also keeping down state costs. Meanwhile, both Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have been making the case that it's OK to raise class sizes a bit, if an exceptional teacher is leading those lessons.

By last fall, schools and districts in Florida were required to cap class sizes for core subjects at 18 students for grades K-3, 22 for grades 4-8, and 25 for grades 9-12. Those that didn't stood to lose a portion of their class-size categorical funds, with some of that money being reallocated to districts and schools that are in compliance.

Districts across Florida have struggled with the class-size requirements, and many school officials have complained that the legislature has not lived up to obligations to pay for the mandate. (State officials say $19 billion has been provided in state money so far.) There are lots of stories about districts taking creative approaches to adhere to the law or subvert it, depending on your point of view. See the New York Times' recent story about students in Miami-Dade County who were placed in "virtual" classrooms for core academic subjects, with no teacher, an arrangement apparently made with the class-size requirements in mind.

Last November, a ballot measure was put before Florida voters that was designed to ease state's class-size caps. The measure won a majority of votes—but not the 60 percent approval necessary to become law.

Which would appear to leave Florida districts in the bind they're in now. Is Florida's experience likely to shape the thinking of other state policymakers on class sizes?

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