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Yes: Smaller class sizes help kids thrive
By Randy Dorn
Are classrooms in our state too crowded? Yes, beyond a doubt.
Washington ranks a shameful 47th out of 50 states for class sizes. Certainly our kids deserve better than that, especially in a region that prides itself on innovation and leadership in the information economy. By approving Initiative 1351 this fall, we can reduce class sizes in grades kindergarten through 12, and bring Washington up to par with the rest of the nation.
I support I-1351 because I know it will improve education for children across the state. In my role as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, I make a point to schedule time away from the politics of Olympia to get in classrooms where real kids are learning. These visits help remind me about what’s most important — our students — and they constantly reinforce what every parent and school child knows: Smaller classes make a difference.
Why? Simply put, smaller class sizes allow kids to receive the individual attention they need from their teacher, attention that builds the personal bonds and connections that foster self, so necessary for effective learning. This is true for students at every grade level, from beginning readers to high school kids in career and technical courses.
Have you been in a school lately? We expect a lot from our students, and rightly so. Rigorous course work helps prepare our kids for success in the high-tech economy. High school math and science are hard, and in many cases students taking them receive full college credit. It’s inspiring to see kids challenged and achieving more than ever before. But this is only possible when teachers understand their students as individual people, when they know their interests and how they see the world, and then make connections that help students understand difficult material.
When voters mark their ballots in November, they’ll answer this question: “Should students, of all ages, from all backgrounds, from all parts of the state, have the opportunity to learn and succeed in smaller classes?”
The answer is an unequivocal yes. I-1351 will reduce average class sizes for kindergarten to third grade to 17 students, and 25 for all other grades. Class sizes would be lower for schools in high poverty communities, where the need is often the greatest, which is why high poverty schools will be the first to benefit from smaller class sizes. The initiative will be phased in to all schools over four years, providing time to budget and plan for its implementation.
Great teachers have two things in common: the first is their ability to build strong personal connections with each student they serve; the second is the team of skilled and caring adults who stand behind them, strengthening the support systems that foster learning. I-1351 adds librarians, counselors, nurses, teaching assistants, family engagement coordinators and student safety staff and others who are vital to quality schools. With proper staffing levels in place, principals are freed to be the instructional leaders
Don’t believe those who say we can’t afford smaller classes. Economists have detailed the benefits, concluding that lower class sizes result in higher graduation rates and more students going to college. This, in turn results in higher earnings, less reliance on welfare and lower rates of incarceration. Washington can do this. In fact, we can’t afford not to.
Today, the million children in Washington’s schools are our kids. Tomorrow they will be our doctors, scientists, firefighters, artists, entrepreneurs, teachers and technicians. By reducing class sizes for them now, we ensure better futures for them and our communities.
Please join me in voting YES on I-1351.
No: Other needs will go under-funded
By Jami Lund
Reasonable people who want to invest in improved education services oppose the misnamed “class size” initiative.
The League of Education Voters, the Children’s Alliance, Stand for Children, the Association of Washington Principals and leading lawmakers of both parties all oppose this initiative. School administrators, the state Parent Teacher Association, School Directors Association, and the League of Women Voters have made no recommendation.
Why? The arguments against are numerous, but they fall into three main points.
First, anyone can find better ways to spend nearly $2 billion per year than merely adding 25,000 people to the payroll. The Legislature and the Supreme Court have identified roughly $3 billion per year in spending increases on priorities primarily other than those of I-1351.
Effective education investments might include extended learning services to students who are falling behind, a more robust school calendar including time for teachers’ professional responsibilities, better services for English language learners, more options for high school students, compensation reform, dropout retrieval programs, customized special education, enriched highly capable student programs, early learning services or even simply investing in facility maintenance.
Initiative 1351 shoves to the head of the line and demands that the top priority will be a 25 percent increase in employee hiring without any specified change in education services. Once this $2 billion per year is committed, we will probably not see improvements like those mentioned above.
The second reason that so many roll their eyes at the simplistic approach of I-1351 is that it is not likely to deliver smaller class sizes as advertised.
Washington has already begun strategic class-size reduction since the outdated estimates that suggest Washington ranks 47th in class size. Currently, schools employ 1 adult for every 9.7 students and one teacher for every 18.5 students.
So why do proponents suggest class sizes are at thirty or more students? Because assumptions used to allocate money do not actually change practices in the local schools. Local decisions about how to deploy staff, union contracts creating financial incentives for large classes and a lack of buildings are all factors in the actual class sizes.
I-1351 changes none of the actual factors that result in a particular class being larger than 19.
To make matters worse, only 7,500 of the employees funded in the initiative would be teachers. More than 17,000 would be school employees who won’t have classes of students, and adding them to the payroll won’t reduce class sizes.
The third concern that the informed advocates for children have for opposing I-1351 is that class size reductions as prescribed won’t improve student learning. The state is already committed to adding more teachers for K-3 classes, so the initiative only really offers class size reduction in the upper grades.
The Washington Institute for Public Policy did an analysis of 53 independent studies last year, and found that class size reductions after third grade have only a 55 percent chance of a positive return on investment, slightly higher than flipping a coin.
And no research suggests that the 17,000 non-teacher school employees improve student learning.
So while the dream of more personal time with children is nice, the clunky and ineffective approach taken by I-1351 will not give us the class sizes we dream of.
Instead, it will displace more effective improvements in services to students; it will not overcome obstacles to smaller class sizes; it will require hiring two non-teachers for every teacher; and it will only address upper grades where research shows little if any impact.
Vote no, and let our elected lawmakers — under the stern glare of the Supreme Court — spend the next $2 billion to $3 billion of new money on thoughtful, holistic solutions that make the top priority student services rather than adult employees.
Jami Lund is a spokesman with the No on I-1351 campaign.