Testimony by Education Policy Director Nancy Keenan
This testimony was delivered January 10, 2003.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, for the record, I am Nancy Keenan, the Education Policy Director for People For the American Way. We have more than 35,000 members in Florida, and we were a leading partner in the Coalition’s effort to bring the issue of smaller classes to a vote of the people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before you today and discuss the challenges and opportunities you have in meeting the needs of Florida’s children.
For many years, People For has been a strong advocate for adopting proven reforms that help ensure that all of America’s children receive a quality education. I have witnessed this challenge from almost every possible vantage point—from inside the classroom and from the legislative arena. I have been a teacher and a member of the Montana House of Representatives. For 12 years, I served as Montana’s elected state superintendent of schools, and I have been a business owner.
Having sat in your position, I know and appreciate the daunting task you face in implementing complex ballot initiatives. It calls for your understanding of school finance, the challenges local districts face, and the tough policy questions at the state level. Most importantly, it calls for your patience, persistence and honest willingness to heed the will of the voters.
Congressman Meek has explained very eloquently that there are reasonable options that the Legislature has in fully funding Amendment 9. I’d like to take the next step by outlining the four key principles that should guide legislators in completing their mission by implementing Amendment 9 appropriately.
The first principle is equity. Equity means three things. First and foremost, the state has a fundamental responsibility to adequately fund the base level of state aid that every school district receives. Amendment 9 should not be used as an excuse to deny this funding to all Florida districts. Secondly, equity demands that additional state dollars be allocated to those districts with overcrowded classrooms. Since Amendment 9’s purpose was to alleviate this overcrowding, these additional resources are critical in meeting that goal. Unfortunately, Gov. Bush is taking a procedural approach to fund Amendment 9, instead of a goal-based approach. Real equity means that a first grader—whether that child lives in Calhoun, Broward or Collier counties—should be learning in a classroom with no more than 18 students. This is an important principle of which legislators must not lose sight.
Finally, equity also demands that all public school students be covered by the protections in Amendment 9. In this vein, we are troubled that the Governor’s plan would create a large and growing loophole by exempting charter schools from Amendment 9. Even though charter schools legally remain public schools, Gov. Bush’s plan would deny some 50,000 children in these schools the benefits of smaller classes. This would create a cruel loophole and serve as a slap in the face to the voters, who wanted to limit class sizes in every public school, not just some of them.
Clarity is the second key principle that should guide this body. The first step in the Governor’s plan calls for clarifying definitions and setting ground rules. As always, the devil is in the details. Gov. Bush’s plan focuses on a formula definition and relies on “district average” class sizes in a way that obscures the central mandate of Amendment 9. The Governor’s approach may only mask reality, as averages often do. If you stick one leg in ice-cold water and the other leg in boiling-hot water, on average you’re pretty comfortable. Amendment 9 itself clarifies the real goal, which is to “reduce the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year until the maximum number of students per classroom do not exceed the requirements of this subsection.” The goal is clear.
Another important part of clarity requires that the Legislature and local school districts have the right information to act on. After all, you can’t make good policy with bad data. The state is relying on pupil-teacher ratios for its data, and numerous educators have explained repeatedly how these figures can understate the problem by counting counselors, librarians and other non-teaching staff. The Committee should support efforts by local school districts to collect data on actual class sizes in each of their schools. Parents and the public have a right to know in much clearer terms—and so do you—where the problem of overcrowding classrooms is greatest.
Flexibility is the third key principle to help achieve smaller classes in which Florida’s children can achieve at higher levels. The responsibility of providing flexibility to districts in the implementation of class size rests first with the state. This Committee should request from the state Department of Education a list of specific recommendations that could be implemented by the department to support school districts in their class-size reduction efforts. Some of these might require legislation, others might be handled by the State Board of Education. Either way, the expectation should be that the state is a partner in the implementation, not a hindrance.
Many of the other recommendations listed in the flexibility section of Gov. Bush’s plan are already options available to schools under their local governance structure. One of the few new options offered by the Governor—local voucher plans—would lead school districts down a misguided path. Students who use vouchers to exit public schools take with them critical dollars needed to cover the fixed, overhead costs of public schools: paying teachers and other staff, keeping the lights on, buying the computers, and keeping the school buses running. Local voucher plans would leave public schools more financially strapped than they already are. Even if financial concerns were not an issue, private schools lack sufficient capacity to take all of the students needed to meet the class size limits in Amendment 9.
Once the Legislature delivers Amendment 9 funding to school districts with overcrowded schools, your guidance to district officials should be to direct these funds to those schools that are most in need. This is not a new concept. From the federal level, Title I dollars are distributed to a school district with priority given to high-poverty, low-performing schools.
Finally, accountability is the fourth key principle that should guide the Legislature. The question we must ask when this process is concluded is this: Are the dollars you have allocated being spent to reduce class sizes, as opposed to permitting school districts to spend them on any purpose they may deem appropriate? Amendment 9 speaks to those school districts that exceed the maximum number of students per classroom. Thus, funding for Amendment 9 should be directed in a way that it reaches districts with overcrowded schools. These funds should not benefit school districts that are already meeting the goal.
The second element of accountability is to examine the short- and long-term impact of Amendment 9’s smaller classes. We encourage you to involve education organizations, parents’ groups and other citizens to develop a model to assess Florida’s experience by studying trends in areas such as test scores, retention rates, student behavior, attendance, teacher satisfaction and parental involvement.
In closing, let me say again that I recognize the gravity of your mission. I recognize that there are many of you who look at Amendment 9 and see the challenge of your lives. But, if it’s any consolation, some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens are facing the challenge of their lives—trying their best to learn in crowded classrooms throughout the state. We want to work cooperatively with you to help ensure that all children have an education environment in which they can learn and succeed.