Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kendrick Meek: Keep Commitment To Florida's Schoolchildren

Not too long ago, Florida schools ranked at the bottom of the national barrel, known for being overcrowded and underfunded. Elected leaders were shortchanging parents, children and teachers and failing to invest in our state's long-term economic prosperity, which depends on a highly skilled and educated workforce.

In 2002, a citizen-led initiative supported a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing students the right to smaller class sizes. The amendment, scheduled to go into full effect this fall, limits the number of students in core curriculum classes in grades kindergarten to 3 (18 students), grades 4 to 8 (22 students) and grades 9 to 12 (25 students).

As chairman of Florida's Coalition to Reduce Class Size, I will never forget the hopeless look on the faces of Florida's parents, wanting nothing more than to provide the best public school education for their children but not knowing how to achieve that in overcrowded classrooms.

Ultimately, a broad coalition of more than 2.5 million Florida parents, teachers, students and education supporters voted. The class-size amendment passed, and smaller class sizes are now enshrined in Florida's constitution.

The class-size amendment ensures that teachers can teach in an environment that students can learn, yet politicians have not relented in watering down hard-fought class-size limits while refusing to tackle the special-interest bidding that is alive and well in the state capital.

Those who wish to undermine the amendment often talk about the problem of the 19th child. If a new student transfers into a school during the academic year, they argue, that additional pupil in a class of 18 would result in schools violating class-size requirements. The scare tactic boogeyman is borne out of an unyielding desire to find any argument, no matter how flimsy, to undercut the people's will.

The state Legislature possesses the statutory tools to resolve this non-issue and provide exceptions to schools in such cases.

Since smaller class sizes have come into effect, a consistent improvement in student achievement levels across the state is being realized.

Reading and math proficiency have improved. High school graduation rates have risen. Years of research also illustrate that children in smaller classes are better behaved, less likely to drop out and have higher grade-point averages.

Reducing class size is one tool of many to give our children a better education. This is what we promised our future generations. This is what they deserve. We can't break our promise to Florida's children.

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