The class size debate is an ongoing controversy concerning whether smaller class size corresponds with higher academic achievement. Numerous studies have been conducted, with conflicting results. Federal funding for class size reduction has been inconsistent. A 1999 federal program designed specifically to fund class size reduction was repealed by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The inconclusive results from the studies of class size reduction leave education policymakers to decide whether reducing class sizes should be a state priority in school reform. This article discusses some of the approaches states have used to regulate class size, whether current budget shortages or other changing conditions may have an unintended impact on class size initiatives, and what parents can do with respect to their child's class sizes.
State Laws Limiting Class Size
Notwithstanding the ongoing debate over the pros and cons of reducing class sizes, a number of states have embraced the policy of class size reduction. States have approached class size reduction in a variety of ways. Some have started with pilot programs rather than state-wide mandates. Some states have specified optimum class sizes while other states have enacted mandatory maximums. Some states have limited class size reduction initiatives to certain grades or certain subjects.
Here are three examples of the diversity of state law provisions respecting class size reduction.
California – The state of California became a leader in promoting class size reduction in 1996 when it commenced a large-scale class size reduction program with the goal of reducing class size in all kindergarten through third-grade classes from 30 to 20 students or less. The cost of the program was $1 billion annually.
Florida – Florida residents in 2002 voted to amend the Florida Constitution to set the maximum number of students in a classroom. The maximum number varies according to the grade level. For pre-kindergarten through third grade, fourth grade through eighth grade, and ninth grade through 12th grade, the constitutional maximums are 18, 22, and 25 students, respectively. Schools that are not already in compliance with the maximum levels are required to make progress in reducing class size so that the maximum is not exceeded by 2010. The Florida legislature enacted corresponding legislation, with additional rules and guidelines for schools to achieve the goals by 2010.
Georgia - Maximum class sizes depend on the grade level and the class subject. For kindergarten, the maximum class size is 18 or, if there is a full-time paraprofessional in the classroom, 20. Funding is available to reduce kindergarten class sizes to 15 students. For grades one through three, the maximum is 21 students; funding is available to reduce the class size to 17 students. For grades four through eight, 28 is the maximum for English, math, science, and social studies. For fine arts and foreign languages in grades K through eight, however, the maximum is 33 students. Maximums of 32 and 35 students are set for grades nine through 12, depending on the subject matter of the course. Local school boards that do not comply with the requirements are subject to lose funding for the entire class or program that is out of compliance.
The Effect of Budget Cuts and Declining Student Enrollments
When there were budget surpluses for education, it made sense to pursue a specific goal of reducing class sizes, and some states have made progress in achieving their goals. With a declining economy, however, many surpluses have turned to deficits. Regardless of the advantages of small class sizes, as a practical matter, class size in some schools is determined by economic necessity rather than policy considerations. California and Florida are just two examples in which budget cuts have derailed the goal of smaller class sizes.
The state of California provided partial funding for its state-wide class size reduction program and local school districts made up the shortfall. As budgets became tighter, however, schools had to take away from other programs to maintain the class reduction goals. And as budgets became even tighter, school districts are being forced to discontinue the program. In one district, budget restrictions caused kindergarten classes to be increased to 33 students per teacher. Moreover, the California program backfired in an unexpected way. When new teacher positions opened up in the suburbs, teachers from the urban areas applied and were hired for those positions. The vacancies in the urban districts were filled with under-qualified teachers. Some urban students did not benefit at all from the smaller class sizes and may have fared worse because of the less qualified teachers.
Florida schools are faced with the dual crises of budget cuts and declining enrollment. School funding from the Florida Lottery is expected to decline because the lottery proceeds are expected to decline. Moreover, school enrollment state-wide is projected to decline 1.6 percent. Funding is based on the number of students, so declining enrollment leads to less funding. Although schools can continue to receive 48 percent of per-student funding for one year after enrollment declines, that is only a partial, temporary cushion before the funding is lost. It is certainly unlikely that any class size reduction can be accomplished in such an environment. An upswing in the economy would probably increase the lottery proceeds and reverse the declining school enrollment. As a consequence of the uncertainty, there is a great concern in Florida about the future of its public schools.
Effect of Increasing Student Enrollment
A state class size restriction may conflict with other legitimate objectives of a local school district. For example, a class size average of 20 children to one teacher is mandated in Tennessee for grades kindergarten through three. The state, however, does not fund the hiring of additional teachers to meet the class size restrictions. The Murfreesboro City Schools are expecting its kindergarten through sixth grade to increase by 240 students next year. The district will have to spend $2.8 million to accommodate the projected increase in students and maintain an average class size of 20 students, including the hiring of one special education teacher, 12 regular classroom teachers, and four educational assistants. The school board members disagree on the class size policy. Some school board members would rather pay the existing teachers more than hire additional teachers. At the other end of the spectrum, other members of the school board would like to see the maximum class size decreased to 19 in grades kindergarten through three. The class size mandate will control, however, thwarting local school districts from making funding decisions based on the needs of a particular community.
What Parents Can Do
Would any parent dispute that small classes are preferable to large classes in public schools? Parents who feel that their child needs the environment of a small classroom will no doubt consider sending their child to a private school. Small teacher-student ratios are frequently cited as a leading benefit of private schooling. Private schools are also expensive, however, and may not be an option for many families.
Parents of public school children are limited in the extent to which they can influence the size of their children's classrooms. Perhaps the best approach is to find out about class sizes at your child's school and, if the classes are large, engage in activities with your child to compensate for the lack of individual attention at school. The following are steps that parents can take with regard to class size.
? Find out about the number of students in your child's classes.
? Find out if your state has a class reduction program and if so, find out whether your child's school is in compliance with the program's requirements.
? If your child's kindergarten through third-grade class contains more than 18 students, investigate the options for your child to attend another school at which the teacher-child ratios in the early grades are more favorable.
? If your child's kindergarten through third-grade class contains more than 18 students, compensate for the lack of adequate individual attention in school by spending more time at home going over homework or other materials related to the subjects in school.
? Attend school board meetings and speak in favor of smaller class sizes whenever the agenda permits.
? If your family considering a move, inquire about class sizes when you are checking out the new schools your child would attend.
? If class size legislation in your state is being considered, write your state senator and congressperson to express your views about class size reduction.
Many states have responded to the politically popular idea of class size reduction by enacting laws that mandate maximum class sizes or specify optimum sizes. State lawmakers may have to revisit the mandatory class reduction requirements in light of changing economic conditions or school enrollments. In states with increasingly limited resources for public schools, reducing class size may not be given priority and school systems may have no choice other than allowing classes to become larger. Parents who are concerned about class size should remain abreast of class size legislation in their states and actual class sizes in their child's school.
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