Florida TaxWatch’s Weak, Unsubstantiated Position on Florida Class Sizes

The editors of the Daytona Beach News Journal have  a fair and even-handed opinion piece on the class size amendment debate going on in the state legislature, but they get one critical fact wrong. And it is one which Floridians and legislators need to be aware of to develop a fair solution. Here’s the critical passage:

Research is most clear on the benefits of small class sizes for very young children. The state constitution caps classes for pre-kindergartners through third grade at 18. The relationship grows murkier after that. Florida caps class sizes in grades 4-8 at 22 students per class, and high-school classes at 25. At that level, there’s almost no correlation between the mandate and student performance. “Florida has been pumping money into a program that simply doesn’t work,” TaxWatch President/CEO Dominic Calabro noted in a report released this month, urging reform of the caps.

The New Journal is taking TaxWatch at their word. They shouldn’t. Let’s delve further into the thinking of the well-respected researcher who prepared the Florida TaxWatch position paper. Bob Nave was interviewed by StateImpact reporter Gina Jordan in January.

Now, 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.”

Nave’s statement at the end reveals subtle bias. The legislature isn’t “forced to fund,” it’s their job to fund education. But it is Nave’s assertion that “research just doesn’t back up” “the sense that smaller classes improve students performance.” Let’s take a look at just how dubious such a definitive statement really is.

Of the 18 sources Nave cites in his paper are three previous Florida TaxWatch papers, two of which he prepared last year. There is only one hard piece of research cited, a Harvard paper last revised in 2010 titled, “The Impact of a Universal Class-Size Reduction Policy: Evidence from Florida’s Statewide Mandate.”

Did Nave only use one scholarly study which is five years old and pre-dates legislative and enforcement tweaks to the class size amendment to make his conclusion? And that this is what TaxWatch is using to drive a piece of legislation which was filed last week?

Moreover, Florida Tax Watch, which always delivers its position papers just in time to drive legislation it favors at the beginning of session, has a history of bias on behalf of education policy republican leadership wants. In 2012, it was clear that TaxWatch coordinated with Senator Steve Wise on a bill to increase funding for charter schools. Wise had TaxWatch’s paper in hand the day before it was even published. In July of 2012, TaxWatch released a paper which trumpeted Florida’s accountability system. It was an example of clear conflict of interest as the TaxWatch paper was written by a former senate aide who helped craft the accountability system.

Still, the vagueness and incompleteness of the TaxWatch position is stunning. Especially when one considers how the class-size amendment is applied in Florida high schools. And it makes TaxWatch’s CEO’s boast that “Florida has been pumping money into a program that simply doesn’t work,” simple partisan spin.

Here’s why.

Floridians understand that classes for music/band, art and physical education classes are practically exempt from class size restrictions. But the don’t know just how few classes are required to stay at 25 or below. Only classes which go along with a state-mandated test must be 25 or more. And it is a very short list – especially when you consider that the majority of core Science, English-Literature-Language Arts, Social Studies classes have more than 25 students in them. For example, all of this writer’s high school Earth Science classes have more than 25 students.  The state’s AP classes are not capped at 25 either.

It’s clear that one 2010 study cannot possibly be the final arbiter of the success of class size caps. Especially when its clear that there are barely any caps at all now. TaxWatch can’t assert that class size guidelines can either working or cost-effective.

One wonders if the legislative sponsors of the class size enforcement tweak, Sen. Rene Garcia and Rep. George Moraitis simply took marching orders from TaxWatch and blindly trusted their conclusions just as did the News Journal. Were they even aware of significant opposition from parents, teachers and students existed among their own constituencies? Writes Christina Veiga in the Miami Herald:

Floridians voted twice to mandate class size limits in the state Constitution. Politicians and school districts have been looking for ways to get around the costly requirement ever since.

They might have finally succeeded, thanks to a little-noticed change in Florida law that allows districts wide leeway in calculating class size — simply by adding the “choice” designation to a school. This year, the state Department of Education quietly approved a request by Miami-Dade County to dub every one of its more than 300 public schools “choice.”

The result: Thomas James teaches 34 students at a time in history classes at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High — nine more than what’s allowed under the constitutional class-size amendment. But his school is blessed as perfectly compliant with the law.

“It would be kind of like if we stuffed 20 people into your office, and then we tried to have a staff meeting. It probably wouldn’t work out well,” he said. “They’re just practically on each others’ lap.”

Parents at Miami Beach Senior High began looking into the issue after noticing the math didn’t add up in many classes. The PTSA is now mounting a campaign to make sure other parents know about the “loophole” that allows schools to cram classes. They’re also calling for changes to the state law.

“The exemptions have become the rule. The legislature has amended the constitution, effectively,” said Kayla Rynor, whose sons attend Beach High.

As Rynor said at the end, “We’re sort of back to square one, with class size being out of control.” In 2002, then governor Jeb Bush said he has “devious plans” to undermine the class size amendment. Florida TaxWatch has proven to be part of them.







About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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