Jeb plays games with Florida class size

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a decision that could have a significant negative impact on students with disabilities, Education Department officials here claim the state’s constitutional amendment limiting class size provides no flexibility for co-teachers in “inclusion classrooms.”

Florida voters previously approved the constitutional amendment, which called for limiting classroom size, to be fully implemented by the year 2010. The amendment specifies 18 students per classroom for kindergarten through third grade; 22 students per classroom for fourth through eighth grades; and high school classrooms capped at 25 students.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush opposed the constitutional amendment limiting classroom size, warning Floridians that the impact of the amendment would be felt much earlier than its implementation deadline. But many were caught by surprise that the government’s initial focus would be on inclusion classrooms.

While the media commonly refers to inclusion as “mainstreaming,” these are actually different educational strategies. Inclusion means a classroom that includes both disabled and non-disabled students; the students who have disabilities stay with their classmates for the full school day. Mainstreaming, by contrast, is a method of educating students with disabilities by alternating them between routine and self-contained classroom settings.

Many inclusion classrooms employ a co-teaching strategy, with a second teacher certified in inclusion education. Consequently, a 30-student inclusion classroom with two educators would have a ratio of 1 teacher per 15 students — figures the government says would be at variance with the amendment. Unfortunately, the language of the constitutional amendment does not specify ratios; it simply limits the number of students in a classroom.

The implication is that inclusion classrooms with co-teachers would end up having much larger class sizes or, alternately, that more students with disabilities would be restricted to self-contained classrooms.

Civil rights activists note that by targeting classrooms that educate students with disabilities, the state Education Department’s determination may run contrary to federal regulations like the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and Section 504. “It’s not at all clear that a state’s constitutional amendment would trump a federal law. Indeed, I suspect that it would not,” said a New York-based attorney who has worked on education and disability issues.

Co-teaching is a common feature in many Florida schools, and isn’t limited to inclusion classrooms. The fact that the practice is so widespread is one of the issues that anger education activists here. “There are so many teachers who are doing [co-teaching],” said one education activist whose six children attend public schools. “My feeling is that Governor Bush is playing the most mean-spirited of political games by targeting these [inclusion] classrooms. He opposed the amendment and now he’s making Floridians regret rejecting his recommendations.”