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Class Size Versus School Size

National Education Association

It’s been 12 years since Florida voters passed the class size amendment, limiting the number of students in certain classes to between 18 and 25, depending on the grade.

Now, a new report suggests focusing on smaller schools - instead of classes - might be more effective.

The School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee (SAS) has just over 300 students. The waiting list to get into this K-8 charter school is much longer. This is 6th grader Mary Stafford’s first year.

“I think I’ll stay. I didn’t want to at the beginning of the year. I wanted to go to a bigger school.” Mary’s elementary school had a thousand kids. Instead of moving on to a traditional middle school with her friends, her mom convinced her to try something different. “She liked the fact that it was small because you get one on one help, and she also liked all the teachers and their way of teaching.”

One of Mary’s teachers, Maureen Yoder, helped found SAS 15 years ago.

“We started this school with the intent of keeping it small because we want to create a school family,” Yoder says. “We believe that the relationship between the teacher and the students is the primary reason students succeed – besides a good home base.”

An analysis by government watchdog Florida Taxwatch finds that small classes do make a difference in outcomes for kids in kindergarten through 3rd grade - but not in higher grades.

The report’s author, Bob Nave, says the state is better off focusing on smaller schools, like SAS, rather than small classes.

“It’s fairly common sense that smaller classes should result in improved student performance,” Nave says. “The problem is the research just doesn’t back that up.”

The group compiled research showing students in smaller schools do better in math and reading, have fewer behavior problems, and participate in more extracurricular activities. They’re also more likely to graduate.

Nave says the state was actually on a path toward having smaller schools in 2000, when the Florida Legislature passed a law limiting the size of new schools under construction. Then, the class size amendment passed.

“The Legislature was forced not only to fund small schools, but now they had to fund small classes,” Nave says. “When one looks at the amount of money that was projected for school construction, it became clear that the Legislature could not do both.”

So lawmakers repealed school size to focus on class size.

“The state has invested over $30 billion in meeting the small class size limits,” Nave says. “We have nothing to show for that investment.”

“If they would implement class size appropriately, we might see what it was meant to be,” says Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, the state teacher’s union. “The Florida Legislature has decided that they would change things, and they eliminated a whole bunch of courses that would be affected by the class size.”

Districts that don’t comply with the limit in core classes have to pay a fine. But now, fewer classes are considered "core" classes. A science class like chemistry can have more students than classes like math or English.

The small school formula has worked well for SAS - rated an “A” school for more than a decade. Many SAS employees are part-time, and that allows the school to keep costs and enrollment down.

Technically, the school has larger elementary classes than the class size amendment allows. Even though it’s a charter school, Principal Julie Fredrickson says they do have to comply with the amendment.

“The way we meet it in elementary school is because we have two certified teachers in each classroom,” Fredrickson says. “For us, it isn't just class size; it’s the way we’re teaching them. If you’re studying plants, then the plant is in there and you’re tearing the plant apart. So a small group can do that and get messy, and another group is doing research with the teacher. We can do those sorts of things.”

Parents who want a small school for their kids are often limited to private or charter schools.

The Taxwatch analysis finds that Florida’s traditional public elementary and middle schools have the highest average enrollment in the country, and high school enrollment in Florida is almost twice the national average.