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House panel reconsiders class-size penalties

The penalties may soon be less severe for school districts that fail to meet state-mandated class-size limits.

A House subcommittee on Tuesday gave early support to a proposal that would change the way class-size compliance and penalties are calculated.

Florida public schools must abide by the class-size limits outlined in a 2002 constitutional amendment. Under the amendment, kindergarten through third-grade classes may have no more than 18 children. Fourth- through-eighth grade classes are capped at 22 students, and high-school classes are limited to 25. 

The penalties are not included in the amendment, but are written into state statute. Traditional public schools are judged (and punished) based on the number of classrooms that are out of compliance. Charter schools and other schools of choice (i.e. district-managed magnet schools) can submit their average class size.

If HB 319 becomes law, traditional public schools could also submit schoolwide averages. What's more, the bill would repeal language set to make the penalties even more costly beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

Miami-Dade Assistant Superintendent Iraida Mendez-Cartaya spoke in support of the proposal on Tuesday, noting that although the Miami-Dade district was at 99.7 percent compliance, the penalty was likely to be about $2 million.

Mendez-Cartaya said complying with class-size limits was “not always in the best interest of family and students.”

“If a family of three moves into a neighborhood, and you have room for one or two of those children [in the school], but not the third, we would have to split up the family,” she said. “That is not the intent [of the amendment] and the district has a policy of keeping families together.”

The House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee voted 12-1 in favor of the bill.

"This really gives district the flexibility they need without taking away the responsibility they have to meet their Constitutional obligations," said Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican.  

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, cast the lone vote against the proposal. He said voters continue to support class-size limits, and said watering down the penalties would send the wrong message to school districts and the public.