Washington initiative would reduce class sizes


By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

A group in Washington has filed a ballot initiative to reduce class sizes in the state’s public schools.

The campaign has raised $630,000, including $350,000 from the National Education Association.

Estimated cost of the reductions — including hiring more teachers and building new schools — is in the billions of dollars. The initiative doesn’t specify a funding source.

“We’re going to let the legislature figure that out,” said Linda Mullen, spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, .which supports the initiative

CLASS SIZE: A ballot initiative would reduce class sizes in Washington state. Opponents wonder how the state will pay for it.

Class Size Counts, the organization pushing the measure, did not return calls or emails requesting comment.

Research on the benefits of class size is mixed, said Matthew Chingos, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Some studies show significant gains when students have smaller class sizes. Other studies show smaller gains, no gains, or even losses when classes are smaller. Most studies have been done on students in lower grades. Very few researchers have studied the effects of class size in middle and high school.

It’s also not clear why students in Tennessee benefited from smaller classes while students in Connecticut didn’t, for example, he said.

In addition, he said, reducing class size is one of the pricier changes.

“It forces schools to do this, and as a result they’re going to have to raise taxes or cut back on other things they’re already doing,” he said. “They might have to eliminate their arts program, or pay teachers less, or do other things to free up money to have smaller classes. … There’s no free lunch.”

Class Size Counts ays on its website the benefits of smaller class sizes “far outweigh the costs.”

“Smaller classes result in higher graduation rates and higher post-secondary educational attainment,” the website says. “This, in turn, results in higher earnings, less reliance on welfare and lower rates of incarceration.”

Chingos said he thought it made more sense to give schools and districts flexibility in their class sizes.

“We don’t want a thousand kids in a class, but it’s hard for me to see the reason why the state needs to tell the schools how they need to be run, how they can spend their resources,” he said. “These state policies, kind of a one-size-fits-all mandate, are a problem.”

A nationwide survey of American Association of Educators members showed almost 60 percent would support a one to two student increase in grades 4 through 12 to make more money available for teacher pay, classroom technology and other programs.

If Washington state voters OK the the initiative, probably nothing would change, said Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, because there’s no funding source listed.

“If it passes, the Legislature will be in the position of having to weigh competing interests for tax revenue,” she said. “(This is an) effort to corner the Legislature to select this policy solution for the schools over other policy solutions for the schools.”

Class sizes in Washington have been trending downward for 40 years. A citizens’ initiative passed in 2001 required smaller class sizes. Though it didn’t specify a funding source, lawmakers found money in tax revenue surplus. In 2009 and 2010, lawmakers passed laws increasing education funding by billions of dollars. Another $1.6 billion was added in the 2013 budget and another $5 billion to $7.5 billion could be coming in the near future.

The state Legislature and Supreme Court have been squabbling over “fully funding” schools for years, Finne said, beginning when a lawsuit, McCleary v. State of Washington, was filed in 2007. The lawsuit alleged the state was not funding schools at a constitutional level. In 2012, plaintiffs won in the state’s Supreme Court, which has been ordering the Legislature to spend more on education.

“A new and better approach is to examine the quality of the teachers you’re putting in these classrooms,” Finne said. “If we’re going to have a 50 percent increase in state funds on this, why aren’t we looking at teacher quality policies? If you have a bad teacher, it doesn’t matter if you have 15, 20, or 25 students. They’re still a bad teacher.”

But Mullen said teacher quality isn’t the issue.

“If you’re in a classroom with 27 kids, or 30 kids, it’s hard,” she said. “We think that there’s a common-sense (solution), and research shows that smaller classrooms make a difference. The vast majority of teachers are excellent teachers.”

The measure, if passed, would require class sizes be reduced from 25 to 17 children in kindergarten through third grade, from 27 to 25 in fourth through sixth grade, and from 29 to 24 in high school.