June 17, 2010 -- As the United States slips in world rankings of secondary education, legislators across the country have been searching for ways to take the country back to the top -- with class size reduction efforts a popular choice.
Come August, Florida will join 24 other states by fully adopting strict class-size requirements – and this at a time when many states are considering loosening such restrictions due to budget constraints.
Voters approved the amendment to the state constitution to phase in class size restrictions nearly a decade ago, and starting with the new school year, all public school classes must meet the following requirements: 18 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in the fourth through eighth grades, and 25 students in high school.
That means if a school has four first-grade classes with 18 students each, it would be required to hire a fifth teacher if one more student enrolls, necessitating a shuffling of students from their original classes to fill the new class.
Jim Yancey, public schools superintendent for Marion County, in northern central Florida, estimates he'll need to hire about 200 new teachers to meet requirements.
"We won't know that until we get to about the 10th day count when school begins in the fall," Yancey told ABCNews.com. "We won't know exactly how many classes we're over by one student or more."
Because of this uncertainty, administrators are forced to take a wait-and-see approach before making any final hiring decisions. Yancey estimates it would take about $12 million to hire enough teachers. The state's amendment notes that "payment of the costs associated with reducing class size … is the responsibility of the state and not of local school districts."
When the amendment was voted in, state funds were available to cover the costs of meeting class size goals. Yet over the years, funds have dropped, and school districts across the state are struggling to find the money to make that final leap.
Are Smaller Classes Worth the Cost?
"We'll make cuts and whatever we have to, to get to that level," said Yancey. "It could be possible that we can't reach that level and we may not be able to be 100 percent in compliance."
Florida's department of education will do a statewide head count in October. Any schools not in compliance with the law will have a portion of their class-size reduction funds taken away. The amount of state money withheld from the school depends on the number of students above the class size restrictions.
Given the financial challenges, some question if smaller class sizes are worth the cost.
A study released last month by Harvard University's Education Policy and Governance program specifically looked at the effects of Florida's new law to find the answer. The study compared students in classes that had reduced sizes with students in classes without the mandated reductions.
"It looks like this hugely expensive policy had little or no effect on student achievement," Matthew Chingos, a research fellow at the Harvard program, told ABCNews.com.
The study focused on math and reading test scores in grades four through eight, and concluded that there was "little, if any" difference in the performance of students who were in reduced-size classes and those who were not.
"I also looked at some other outcomes such as behavior problems in the schools, the number of days a student is absent, and even there, basically no effects across the board," Chingos said.
Chingos went on to explain the study does not say reducing class sizes in general has no effect. He said it just shows reducing class size with such tight resources is not the solution to improving education.
"This policy effectively reduced class sizes by a handful of students. That pretty modest reduction in class size didn't have a big effect," Chingos explained. "You might say 'Oh well, you wouldn't expect that much of an effect.' But even a small reduction, such as that in Florida, costs billions and billions of dollars across the whole state."
The Benefits of Smaller Classes
Another study done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education took a national look at the effects of class size on student achievement.
"Smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade help increase achievement. Those benefits persist over time. They don't increase much after first grade, but they do persist over time," said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Adam Gamoran.
This study compiled the results of several studies done nationwide to reach a consensus.
"If you don't set up conditions that are conducive to benefits of smaller classes, you won't get those benefits," Gamoran said.
Gamoran worked with researchers to observe the state of California and found its class size reduction policy was not giving state education officials the intended effect.
In 1996, California put the Class Size Reduction program into place. The program mandates a 20-students-per-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade. Unlike Florida's program, California's reduction is not mandatory. But the financial incentives for participating are so great—schools get $1,071 per student—that almost every school district is participating. Since 1996, the state has spent more than $22 billion on the program. Gamoran says that when the program was first implemented, districts were not seeing the benefits.
"They didn't have enough qualified teachers to go around, and they didn't have enough space to put all the new classes. As a result, they didn't get the benefits they had expected."
Gamoran said the state of Florida should be concerned about similar results. He suggests Florida look to other states to ensure the newly enacted policy brings the expected improvement in education.
But there is another amendment Florida voters will face in November.
In response to schools' struggles with funding, state legislators have floated a new amendment that would loosen the current class size restrictions. Amendment 8 would allow individual classes to exceed the school-wide cap as long as other classes contained fewer students than allowed.
The amendment needs a 60 percent approval rate to pass. Some school districts, including Marion County, are hoping it does.
"I don't know that it can get 60 percent of the vote," said Yancey. "But a year from now, when the funding cliff hits, I don't know what will be done because I don't think there will be a district in the state of Florida that can meet class size in '11-'12 unless there's adequate funding."