Florida Voters May Regret Class Size Vote

Published May 1, 2003

As Florida’s governor and legislature grapple with the staggering fiscal implications of implementing a voter mandate to reduce K-12 class sizes, multiple studies are casting grave doubt on the cost-effectiveness of such a change.

Governor Jeb Bush has said the projected $28 billion cost of phasing in the class size amendment could “blot out the sun,” forcing the Sunshine State to defund vital programs or endure a massive tax increase. In winning re-election by a landslide last fall, Bush opposed the class size referendum, but it passed by a slim majority.

The constitutional amendment obliges lawmakers to reduce average class size by two students per year until the goals are met. By 2010, no Florida classrooms may have more than 18 pupils in pre-kindergarten through the third grade, 22 pupils in grades 4-8, and 25 students in high school.

Bush is urging the Republican-controlled legislature to call a special election allowing voters to reconsider the amendment. However, a three-fourths vote is required and Bush does not appear to have the support of enough Democrats to make it happen. Some Republicans also have balked.

U.S. Class Size Studies

Under former Governor Pete Wilson, California mandated classes no larger than 20 pupils through the third grade. The price tag has mushroomed to $4 billion, and school districts are putting the so-called 20-1 program on the chopping block in a desperate effort to find money to run the schools.

Research has failed to show that reductions in class sizes have yielded improvements in performance. The Class-Size Reduction Consortium found the large number of extra teachers necessitated by the mandate led to a lowering of teacher quality that could have wiped out any benefits of smaller classes.

Policy changes that started in the Golden State about the same time–including the virtual end of bilingual education and social promotion, and the start of statewide testing and a back-to-basics curriculum–may have been more responsible for student achievement gains.

A study by Louisiana’s Education Department, released in February, concluded that class size has much less impact on student achievement than the quality of teacher preparation.

International Studies

Research examining class size effects on an international level was conducted under the auspices of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Researchers Ludger Woessmann and Martin West looked at the effect of class size on student performance in 18 nations. They found sizeable beneficial effects of smaller classes only in Greece and Ireland, and the total absence of even small effects in Japan and Singapore. In other countries, their analysis ruled out significant class size effects.

In general, they found class size to be more important when teachers are relatively less effective. They concluded, “it may be better policy to devote the limited resources available for education to employing more capable teachers rather than to reducing class sizes–moving more to the quality side of the quantity/quality tradeoff in the hiring of teachers …”

In Australia and New Zealand, controversy has erupted over an academic’s study–the Vinson Report–that relied largely on the vaunted Tennessee STAR study to argue for class size reductions for 5- to 8-year-old children. Jennifer Buckingham, a policy analyst for The Centre for Independent Studies, countered Vinson by observing that reducing classes from 25 to 20 would yield only two extra minutes of individual instruction per day. She said the Tennessee study was flawed in its methodology and the vast majority of other studies show no significant effect of class size on student achievement.

“It is far more valuable, both in educational and economic terms,” Buckingham wrote, “to have good teachers than lots of teachers. The first priority is to ensure that the current and incoming teaching force is as good as it can be, by improving teacher education and in-service training and removing ineffective teachers.”

Compliance through School Choice

If Florida does proceed with the class size mandate, there may be one way to comply without drastic spending cuts or a tax hike: expanded school choice.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan research organization, has noted that by expanding its corporate income tax credit for donations to private scholarships, Florida could reduce class sizes while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Governor Bush also has broached the idea of broadening the state’s offer of vouchers to students wishing to transfer to private schools.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

The March 26, 2002 paper by Ludger Woessmann and Martin R. West, “Class-Size Effects in School Systems Around the World: Evidence from Between-Grade Variation in TIMSS,” can be found at the Web site of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance at http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/papers.htm.

The February 19, 2003 paper by Jennifer Buckingham, “Missing Links: Class Size, Discipline, Inclusion and Teacher Quality: A Response to the Vinson Report on Public Education in New South Wales,” can be found at the Web site of The Centre for Independent Studies at http://www.cis.org.au/IssueAnalysis/ia29/IA29.htm.