Last spring, Rocky Hanna — principal of Tallahassee’s Leon High School — was a vocal supporter of Amendment 8, but when the legislature failed to come through with the final round of funding, leaving schools $353 million short, the administrator set out to meet the class cap on his own.
“I spoke in favor of this amendment last spring,” Hanna tells The Florida Independent. “I was convinced by some people with the American Association of School Administrators that this was the right thing to do, so we as principals would have flexibility in our schedules and I signed on. I thought if all things were equal, especially the funding piece, that it would be nice to have a little more flexibility and not have the hard cap at 25. By the end of the session, I realized that all things were not going to be equal and once they decided not to give the final round of funding up all bets were off.”
Hanna says that his school was able to meet the requirements of the original 2002 class size amendment after a summer filled with long days and nights of brainstorming and number-crunching by teachers and administrators. He also notes the support of Superintendent Jackie Pons in providing the resources that made it possible for Leon to reach the 25-student-per-class cap without having to cut teachers, programs or extra-curricular activities — precisely the kinds of “scare tactics” made by supporters of Amendment 8.
“We just rolled up our shirt sleeves and went to work this summer, and did a lot of number crunching, and looked where we’d need to hire some people in order to make it work without cutting programs,” he says. “It also took some tough decisions at the district level, with teachers not having raises, and looking at what programs and what fat could be cut at the district level and given back to schools. We didn’t lose any arts programs, or student government, yearbook, newspaper. We certainly could have used the $350 million the legislature had originally committed to support the final round of class size. If we’d had that money we could have done even better.”
Damien Filer, political director of Progress Florida tells TFI, “The leadership of the Florida legislature who support the Yes on 8 campaign are opposed to public schools. The state legislature has spent eight years trying not to implement [classroom size reduction] in good faith. The Yes campaign can actually impact school policy by turning people against classroom size reduction.”
The Florida Independent has reported that Amendment 8 would allow for class size averages from K through 12th grade, and not a specific count of students per classroom, as is currently stipulated in the Florida Constitution.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who in 2002 was a vocal opponent of class size reduction, is a strong supporter of Amendment 8. In a recent op-ed published in The Miami Herald, Bush wrote:
This year, many of Florida’s schools are struggling to meet the inflexible hard caps on class sizes, which have caused chaos for parents, students, teachers and principals. That is why many parents and educators have joined leading educational organizations – such as the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators – in supporting Amendment 8, which provides schools with the flexibility they need to manage class size.
Supporters of the Yes on 8 campaign include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, an organization with 1,100 business and community leaders in 55 county foundations.
In a July press release, Florida TaxWatch wrote:
“Amendment 8 is the right investment for Florida as the Legislature is faced with balancing the state budget while burdened with funding the tens-of-billions of dollars in additional investment needed to comply with the original CSR requirements over the next 10 years,” said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of the Tallahassee-based nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog, Florida TaxWatch.
Filer points out that “a standard talking point of Amendment 8 supporters is that passing Amendment 8 can save $1 billion per year. What we say is that [saving] would be a cut to the education budget.”
Hanna acknowledges that raising the class size limit will in fact provide substantial savings, but at the cost of public education. He also echoes the claims made by the No on 8 campaign that while Amendment 8 is being propped up as a way to better fund classrooms or provide for teacher raises, the teachers and their union “don’t believe it for a second.” But educators around the state still support the measure.
“What’s disappointing and amazing to me is that here you have school administrators and boards that will admit the legislature didn’t get the final round of funding, they’ll admit the legislature could have provided some flexibility on their own given the financial situation in the state, they admit the legislature was the ones that created the harsh fines that we’re now having to face across the state. They admit those things, but they still support the amendment.”
The Consortium of Florida Education Foundations — an Amendment 8 supporter — also points to a Harvard study it says shows class size reduction does not improve student achievement. And Calabro added in the Florida TaxWatch press release, “There is little evidence that CSR has been effective at improving student achievement in Florida or elsewhere.”
But a University of Colorado and Arizona State University review states, “From a statistical standpoint, this [Harvard] study is well done,” but the UC/ASU review concludes, “Instead of a study of the impact of class-size reduction, this [Harvard study] is actually a study of the impact of providing resources to districts that are earmarked for class-size reduction versus providing the same amount of resources that districts could spend as they wish.”
Cited in a previous article by TFI, the Harvard University study looked at grades 4 through 9 at the school and district level and concluded there has not been a significant academic impact in Florida schools since voters passed universal class size reduction in 2002.
The UC/ASU review states, “Since 1978 or earlier, it has been found consistently that benefits of small classes accrue mainly in the early grades (K-3) and primarily are associated with substantial reductions in class sizes.
“Indeed there is as much published and unpublished research on this topic as on most topics in education—much of it showing positive effects.”
As one of the few administrators to come forward against the measure, Hanna says now that he feels he was “duped” into his original endorsement of Amendment 8. When asked if other principals around the state have reached out for help with their programs, he says, “I’ve been treated like the plague.”
One aspect of Amendment 8 Hanna claims is misunderstood is the school-wide average for determining class caps, which traditionally include all standard courses in addition to special education classes, whose classes average eight or nine students. Removing those low figures would drastically impact impact the overall class size average, thus making a reasonable cap even more difficult to reach.
Leon High School is also bucking a trend many public schools in the state have resorted to in order to meet class caps: co-teaching courses. The law stipulates that if two teachers are in a given classroom, the student cap can be doubled, and Hanna is proud to note that he is “philosophically against it” and that not a single class at Leon is co-taught.
Asked if things will change at Leon High should Amendment 8 pass or fail, Hanna says it won’t affect his school at all, as he’s already below 25 students in each of the 370 core classes that take place throughout the school day. As for taking a harsh stance in opposition to the legislation after having supported it, he notes he’d have been inclined to let the issue go were it not such a blow to public education.
“I probably would have just let it roll if I had not been the face and the voice to speak for the amendment last March. I couldn’t in good conscience do it because I knew it was not the right thing to do and at the end of the day the amendment is a loser for public education, a loser for our teachers, and most importantly a loser for our kids.”
Marcos Restrepo contributed to reporting on this story.