9 Investigates: Loophole allows for increased class size to handle population growth

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Florida voters in 2002 passed a constitutional amendment to limit class size -- a requirement that some schools continue to struggle with, especially after an influx of people from the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico.

9 Investigates' Cierra Putman discovered that to abide by the state's class-size reduction requirements, the School District of Osceola County has deemed each of its schools a "school of choice," meaning that its average number of students is calculated across grades instead of by classroom.

Fernando Moreta, who teaches English at Gateway High School, said that when it comes to core classes, it's challenging to meet the state’s class size limit of 25 students.

Moreta told Channel 9 last month that one of his classes had 29 students.

"It puts (a) strain on me and any teacher," he said.

The district reported core high school class counts as high as 40 due to an influx of people from Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.

"We're bursting at the seams," said Apryle Jackson, president of the Osceola County Education Association.

Jackson said the issue of class size predates Hurricane Maria. She said the district deemed each of its schools a school of choice this year to better manage class sizes.

The amendment caps class size at 18 students for pre-K through third grade and 22 for fourth through eighth grades.

"You may have a third-grade class that's sitting at 22, 23, but when you average K-3 together they meet the guidelines,” Jackson said.

Lawmakers expanded the district-operated schools of choice rules in 2013. There were almost 1,200 of those schools that first year, according to Florida Department of Education. This past school year, that number is more than 2,700.

Jackson said it's a loophole that curbs education costs while sidestepping the voters’ will, but she doesn't blame the district for using it.

"It's a necessity when the budget is being cut every year," she said.

Lawmakers said flexibility is necessary, because there aren't enough teachers and the amendment is costly.

"In a real-world setting, you have to have flexibility if you're going to do what's in the best interest of your students,” said state Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando.

Moreta said he thinks the amendment is a good idea, but he said he’ll keep teaching his students despite the size of the class.

"When our kids come, we teach them," he said. "It's as simple as that."

Cierra Putman

Cierra Putman, WFTV.com

Cierra Putman flew south to join Eyewitness News in July 2016.