State class-size requirements: unintended consequences

There is a voter-approved constitutional amendment in Florida that limits the number of students in (core) classes. Districts are fined for each class that is over the limit. For middle school, the limit is 22 students per class.

On the surface, this seems like a great policy–who wouldn’t want smaller class sizes?

However, the way this is calculated leads to some not-ideal outcomes for students. The fines are based on the number of classes that are out of compliance with this policy. Thus, imagine a middle school which has enrollment in a particular grade level which is a few students above 22 per class. Since the district is incentivized to minimize the number of CLASSES which are over the threshold, it is in the (monetary) best interest of the district to place all of the extra kids into one class that goes higher over the limit, instead of into several different classes which would each only go one or two students over the limit.

For example, imagine a school in which enrollment is such that each section of a class in a particular subject is at 22 students each plus 4 extra students overall. In order to minimize the fine from the state, all four of those extra students should be assigned to the same section of the class, bringing that section up to 26 students, while all the rest are at 22.

This doesn’t make sense educationally. If assuming that smaller class size leads to better educational outcomes which is reasonable and seems to be the premise of this state policy, then it is extremely difficult to argue that adding four students to a single class (26, 22, 22, 22, 22, …) will create a better learning environment overall than adding a single student to each of four classes (23, 23, 23, 23, 22, ….).

There are some interesting things to think about regarding the extent of the educational “damage” done by adding each subsequent student to a class depending on how many students are already in the class: how does the “marginal damage” of moving a class from 25 to 26 compare to the “marginal damage” of moving a class from 22 to 23? Conclusions can also change a bit depending on whether school-wide learning is assumed to be optimized by maximizing the number of students in “small” courses while dumping the rest in giant classes (what this law incentivizes) versus minimizing the largest class size by keeping all classes at the same enrollment (which makes more sense intuitively and meets a higher threshold of perceived fairness).

Through all of this discussion, one might wonder whether schools really actually place lots of kids into one much larger class to keep the rest of the kids in classes that are below the threshold. The answer is “yes.”

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1 Response to State class-size requirements: unintended consequences

  1. Israel P. says:

    Big difference between “unintended because something was truly unexpected” and “unintended because the planners didn’t think or didn’t pay attention to those who objected.”
    The former happens often in science due to not knowing. The latter happens all the time in government due to…well… the nature of government..


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