Class Size: Federal Funding of Class Size Reduction

Class Size: Federal Funding of Class Size Reduction
Learn about how class size reduction is funded on the federal level.

Studies show that students, especially younger minority and disadvantaged children, perform better when they are in classes with 19 or fewer students. Class size reduction is often embraced by elected officials because it is a popular subject with teachers and parents. There are also studies demonstrating that class size reduction is either not beneficial or not cost-effective compared to other school reforms. This article discusses the education policy of the federal government concerning class size reduction.

Before NCLB

In 1999, a Class Size Reduction (CSR) program was added to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The goal of the CSR program was to improve educational achievement by reducing class size with fully qualified teachers. Special attention was focused on class size reduction in the early elementary grades to 18 or fewer students. To accomplish the class size reduction goal, the program sought to fund the hiring of 100,000 fully qualified teachers for grades kindergarten through third grade within seven years. The appropriations were $1.2 billion in 1999, $1.3 billion in 2000, and $1.623 billion in 2001. The CSR program was only in effect from 1999 to 2001. In its first two years, 37,000 teachers were hired.

This video offers a teacher's point of view on class size.

The use of funds under the CSR program was restricted to activities that would lead directly to hiring and training qualified teachers. Local school districts were permitted to use funds under the CSR program for 1) recruiting, training, and hiring fully qualified teachers; 2) testing the academic content knowledge of newly-hired teachers and meeting state requirements for certification, and 3) providing professional development opportunities. The districts had to devote at least 72 percent of the funds to recruiting, training, and hiring teachers. They were authorized to spend up to 25 percent on testing and professional development activities and up to three percent on administration. If a school district succeeded in reducing class sizes in grades kindergarten through three to 18 or fewer students, they could use the funds to decrease further the class sizes in these or other grades or to improve teacher quality. The CSR program required accountability from states and local school districts receiving funds under the program. Annual reports were required on their progress in reducing class size and increasing the percentage of core academic subjects taught by fully qualified teachers. They also had to report the impact of class size reduction on student achievement.

The CSR program succeeded in decreasing the average class size by one or two students where the federal funds were used to hire new teachers. At the end of its brief operation, the overall class size was 18 students in kindergarten, 20 in first grade, and 21 in second and third grades. Unfortunately, the CSR teachers in 44 percent of the schools were not given separate classrooms but rather were assigned special subjects or team teaching. These teachers did not contribute to a reduction in class sizes. In over half the schools where the CSR teachers were given classrooms, enrollment increases wiped out the class size reduction that could have been achieved with the new teacher. Either teachers not being given separate classrooms or enrollment increases occurred in 73 percent of the schools receiving funding from the CSR program. Without these two unanticipated factors, the impact of the CSR program would have been more significant.

Class Size under NCLB

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) reauthorized the ESEA in general but repealed the Class Size Reduction (CSR) program.

NCLB takes a different tack than the CSR program with respect to class size. NCLB is organized so that Title I deals generally with improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged and Title II addresses the subjects of preparing, training, and recruiting high quality teachers and principals. Rather than treating class size as an aspect of increasing academic performance in Title I, NCLB refers to class size in Title II in the context of eligibility for grants to improve teacher quality.

Title II establishes a teacher and principal training and recruiting fund to provide grants to state and local agencies that will serve to increase student performance through improving the quality of teachers and principals. NCLB lists numerous activities in which local subgrants may be used. One of the permissible activities is to recruit and hire qualified teachers to reduce class size, particularly in the early grades. Thus, reducing class size under NCLB is one initiative of many for the purpose of recruiting and hiring qualified teachers.

Critics have strongly disagreed with the repeal of the CSR program because NCLB does not continue the direct link between small class size and academic achievement. Instead, under NCLB, hiring teachers to reduce class size is one of many activities that can be funded for the purposes of training and recruiting high quality teachers. At present, therefore, federal education legislation does not contain a funding program specifically devoted to reducing class size to improve academic achievement.

NCLB was scheduled to be reauthorized in 2007, but Congress has failed to agree on a revised version of the controversial legislation. We do not know whether the reauthorized NCLB will make any changes with regard to class size.


Federal education policy concerning class size reduction has shifted twice over the past few years. First, Congress enacted the CSR program to provide federal funds to reduce class sizes, particularly in the early grades. Thus, class size reduction was made a federal priority. Second, NCLB repealed the CSR program and substituted in its place a teacher hiring grant program under which states and local school boards receiving grants could apply the funds to class size reduction as one of many options. The repeal of the CSR program indicates that class size reduction has ceased to be a federal priority warranting a special grant program. Fortunately for those who advocate smaller class sizes, most states have enacted laws that require or encourage a reduction of class sizes in the early grades. Unless the revised NCLB revives the CSR program, future direction regarding smaller class sizes will come from the individual states rather than the federal government.

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